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Why authenticity is the key to comms, and why Merkel will win

Posted on 22 September 2009 | 8:09am

 

Here is an article I wrote which appeared in Le Figaro yesterday, on the importance of authenticity in communications.

Barring a major surprise, Angela Merkel will be re-elected Chancellor of Germany next Sunday. If it were a straight Presidential vote, she would win by a landslide, as she polls way ahead of her Christian Democrat Union party.  

All this despite, in common with other leaders, struggling with a global economic crisis, a difficult and unpopular war in Afghanistan, and a more questioning, less automatically respectful public opinion.

 

Furthermore, she is to some extent the antithesis of what we expect the modern candidate to be. In an era when looks and celebrity so dominate our culture, she lacks the obvious charisma of an Obama or the dynamism of a Sarkozy. She comes over as rather stern and self-effacing. The campaign has been dull, her performance in the only TV debate with her main opponent equally so. She is not a stirring orator, and seems rather uncomfortable with the high profile that goes with her job. And she probably spends less on hair products and make-up than Silvio Berlusconi.

 

Of course all countries differ. It is hard to imagine Berlusconi thriving politically in any country but Italy, where his control of so much of the media must be something of a help. Merkel might not work so well as a British or French candidate. But what is it that makes her a much stronger candidate than on paper she might appear to be? The answer is authenticity. It is the key to effective communications.

 

The last two decades have seen an explosion in media which means the modern politician is more scrutinised, if measured in volume of coverage, than ever before. The politicians and parties have had to develop their media management techniques. The public are more aware of the processes of politics, and of media.

 

The media used to mean newspapers, TV and radio. Now it means also the infinite choices of the internet, and social networking which is changing the way people conduct and consume politics. Controlling your message becomes less straightforward, clarity of message even more important.

 

The recent furore over whether or not the Elysee asked for exclusively short people to be photographed with. President Sarkozy at a motor technology plant in Caen is a good case in point. Both the Elysee and the company deny it. Yet once the rumours began, it was ‘too good a story’ for people not to want to tell, and has had more media exposure than virtually anything since his election or his marriage to Carla Bruni.

 

Why? Because it is a fascinating process story, which the media love, going to the heart of authenticity, which the public are quick to sense. President Sarkozy is relatively short. People elected him knowing that. Anything which suggests he or his advisers would like to change or deny that reality will lead to nothing but trouble.

 

Authenticity also relates to overall strategy, and President Sarkozy offers another interesting illustration of this, with his recent announcement of a carbon tax.

 

It is a bold move, and one which in the current debate over climate change might have deserved a more supportive response. But why did it appear to attract as many voices of rejection as support, including from green campaigners?

Partly because of all the leaks and arguments about its exact nature, and the exemption of electricity, all of which eroded clarity. But also because it did not seem to fit with what people expected of him. The groundwork was not done and therefore it did not appear to be rooted in a bigger strategy. That then opened the space for people to question motives – claiming it was all about gesturing pre the Copenhagen Summit, or it was a back-door debt reduction move.

 

So what struck me as a decisive and important act of leadership on a vital global issue did not get the support it merited, because of coverage of process, and doubts about authenticity.

 

The first and most obvious step to authenticity is to be who and what you are. That does not mean not taking care of image, message, words, pictures, clothes, media management, voices of third party support, attacks on opponents.

But they must all speak to a basic strategic reality, because in this more intense exposure, the public will get to the reality anyway. Gordon Brown’s Premiership of Britain has been at its best when he has been wrestling, and been seen to be wrestling, with big complicated issues like the global financial crisis. It plays to his strengths. Yet when he tries to address a perceived weakness, summed up in the phrase ‘dour Scot’ which stalks his media profiles, with a populist touch or a modern cultural resonance, reactions tend to be negative. The real thing – dour Scot more interested in serious policy than modern fame – is more authentic, and thus more attractive.

 

The President of the US remains the figure with the highest profile in world politics and in communications terms, the incumbent, Barack Obama, adds to the pressure on the rest. He is tall, handsome, with a winning smile, a stunning family, a great turn of phrase, superb oratorical skills and a deep understanding of modern campaigning. Plus his face tells its own extraordinary story which makes him, even in the lexicon of US political history, extra special.

He is now well into the prose part of ex-New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s wonderful description of politics – ‘we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.’

 

The debate over health reform sees American politics at its most raw and divisive. Over the summer, his opponents gained the upper hand, and got him on the defensive. His speech to Congress was the start of the fightback. It had to show the real Obama, with all those political and oratorical skills, armed with real arguments and a sense of passion, mission, and being up for the fight ahead. It worked well. It was a reminder of why people elected him. It was authentic. Expected, but also fresh and powerful. It does not mean the fight is won. But it does mean he got himself back in the game.

 

Nobody gets to lead their country without having very special qualities. The five leaders mentioned above are all very different people, with different styles, different characters, different strengths and weaknesses. But the prose of government is harder than the poetry of campaigns. Getting there is hard enough. Staying there, in the modern age, is even harder. As Frau Merkel’s father, a Protestant pastor, might well have said, being true to yourself is the only guidebook worth having.

  • Ronald Mizen

    I think that it is a good thing that as the fourth estate becomes less effective in their roll as guardians of truth and honesty, due to their corporate masters; that the fifth estate or the blogosphere are taking up the fight and pulling back the mask of politicians well managed public facades.

    Do you think you would have been as successful in shaping your messages during the ’97 campaign if you had bloggers publishing every small vain and or self indulgent moment of Mr Blair, or the intense negotiation that goes on with exclusive interviews like camera angles, approved subjects and the like?

  • Charles Milton

    Berusconi … ouch! But yes, not so hard for him to get the press on his side.

  • Alison Hardie

    I live in France, but still follow the UK media, and you might be surprised at how little the ‘short people’ photo issue was covered here. I think you had more coverage of it there. France’s media is very cowed by Sarkozy at the moment

  • Ruth

    Merkel will also win because she has had her main opponent trapped inside her coalition, making it hard for him to strike a disctinctive tone. And he is even more uninspiring than she is

  • @jlocke13

    Intelligent,well written article making pertinent points…so much better without the usual unnecessary dig at the Tories…. Keep it up AC..

  • Alan Quinn

    Ally, Merkel might be managing to get her message across to the electorate, unlike our lot.

  • WhelanPotKettleCampbell

    ‘Authenticity of message’ – spin, lies, deceit, bullying behaviour. I think the public have become quite well versed in identifying messages delivered by spin doctors like yourself. Interesting that you focus on the authenticity of delivery or communication rather than the substance of the message – but then its always been about manipulation, argument over facts, form over substance for you – at least it comes accross that way. (No wonder the public are cynical when you peddle transparent lies on behalf of egomaniacs like Blair and Brown).

    ‘Nobody gets to lead their country without having very special qualities’. Excuse me for choking on my cornflakes – not sure the ability to bury your head in the sand, bully others, lie, cast allies aside when you need to pin the blame for your mistakes on someone else, write third rate academic papers on theoretically remote subjects are particularly ‘special’ talents – but they’ve certainly worked in assisting Mr ‘moral compass my arse’ Brown to the top – shame for all of us ordinary folk (particularly the armed forces who have been seen off massively by his negligence) that he just ain’t up to the job.

    Gordon Brown has always been true to himself – at the expense of the rest of us unfortunately.

    Take cover – incoming from the usual AC toadies.

    Best,

    WhelanPotKettleCampbell

  • Charm offensive

    People like Merkel only work as candidates if there is a serious media and you only get serious media if people are serious about their responsibilities as electors. Britain’s brains have been reduced to marmalade by dumbing down in our media so that frankly more people today will be talking about Aleysha or Arlene as a dancing programme judge than whether Gordon or Cameron should be Prime Minister. ANd it will be something similarly unimportant at election time

  • Polly Harriban

    Really interesting analysis. But why in a French newspaper rather than closer to home, where your ‘guidebook’ should be employed by political leaders here

  • Brian Hughes

    Interesting piece and interesting that a French paper should print an article by an Englishman on such a topic. I’ve yet to read anything by a Frenchman on it in the British Press.

    But then I’ve yet to read much at all about the German elections in our media. The only times any “European” news (that is news about anywhere in Europe other than the British Isles) creeps in seems to be if it’s about some alleged threat to Our Traditional Way of Life posed (usually) by the dreaded Unelected Bureaucrats in Brussels or some personality based nonsense such as how short the French president is or how many girlfriends the Italian one has.

    Another of my possibly rose-tinted observations made during travels in France is how much more coverage other European countries get there than here. Even their teletext service has more pages about news from the rest of the EU than it does about French news. Our teletext has zero.

    What a depressingly insular lot we are…