The video surfaced, appropriately enough, on the “For You” page of my TikTok account. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky stands at the hospital bedside of a young girl injured in the war with Russia. “Everybody supports you in TikTok,” gushes the girl.
“So, we have occupied TikTok?” Zelensky replies.
She grins: “All talk about you … it is all about you.”
In the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, Zelensky’s popularity skyrocketed as his down-to-earth, courageous demeanor was displayed to the world, largely through his team’s own amateur videos—shot on a phone—that indeed conquered social media. While huge on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (not to mention Reddit), Zelensky has really broken out on TikTok, the home of silly dancing videos and endless memes.
It turns out TikTok’s not just for that.
As Zelensky has so ably demonstrated, the platform is ripe for the kind of authentic and direct self-expression that he provides as he dashes from one hiding place in Kiev to another. Beyond trending around the world, Zelensky has used the immediacy and intimacy of iPhone video to tell one of the most compelling stories of the year (if not the decade): that of a proud underdog who speaks truth to the authoritarian power attempting to annex his country.
Zelensky wouldn’t be the first nonintuitive TikTok star. For example, the seemingly dry Sacramento History Museum—“the only museum dedicated to Sacramento, CA, and the California Gold Rush”—is another breakout star on the platform. This is in large part due to one of the curators, Howard, an amiable older man who operates the museum’s working printing presses (to great effect on the platform). When the pandemic hit and the museum had to shut its doors to the public, some of its TikTok-savvy younger staff members made the offbeat suggestion to take the museum to the world via the platform. Now there’s no looking back. The museum’s ragtag team of lovable, nerdy docents has racked up over 2 million followers and 30 million likes.
This offers a lesson for the corporate client who says “that’s not for us” when the idea of leveraging the platform comes up. For one thing, your content lives on TikTok—shared by influencers and other stakeholders—whether you like it or not. And with a suite of editing tools that puts Instagram’s to shame, TikTok is evolving into a powerhouse communications app both for brands “at home” and personalities in the gravest situation imaginable.
Done the right way, TikTok can be a fresh and effective way to reach new audiences. It lets serious leaders and institutions connect in a visceral way, whether their aim is to win a war against a foreign aggressor or share the wonders of Sacramento history. Next time you dismiss TikTok as a real option for your organization, consider these examples and then start assessing the compelling stories you can tell with some foresight and a phone. You can dance if you want to—just keep things on-brand and you’ll shine.