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.