Is Obama Losing His Story?

The USA Today editorial pages – as well as every other newspaper in America – are reporting how Barack Obama has broken the relationship with this supposed pastor of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright, after he viewed the tapes of Wright’s bizarre appearance at the National Press Club on Monday. But this blog isn’t about politics – it’s about media, and telling your story in a media-driven culture. That’s why what interests me is
a political candidate whose carefully crafted story about himself is becoming unraveled. After writing a best-selling book: “Dreams from My Father,” and building a brilliant campaign team, and running on “change” – a number of smaller distractions are starting to impact him in a significant way.

As USA Today says, “he needs to retake control of his life story.” By now you know the problems – the initial clips of Wright, and why Obama sat in a pew (supposedly) for 20 years under the ministry of a man who still believes the U.S. government invented AIDS, or says “God Da*n America,” his condescending remarks about “bitter” voters, his wife suggesting a lack of pride in America, his ties to former radical William Ayers – and more. The softballs Bill Moyers threw at Wright in his fawning PBS interview didn’t help Obama – it only raised more questions.

Whether you’re voting for Obama or not, the bigger question for all of us is “What happens when you lose control of your story?” For companies, non-profits, churches, individuals, and political candidates, your brand story is your identity. It’s who you are, and what that means to your customers, congregation, donors, or voters.

To his credit, Obama gets this, and that’s why he’s taking strong steps to regain control of his story. Yesterday’s angry – and frustrating renunciation of Wright was the first step.

I say in my book “Branding Faith” that if you don’t control your brand story, you’ll spend the rest of your life at the mercy of others who will.

Who is telling your story? Eliot Spitzer thought he was, until a revelation about using an escort service re-wrote that story. Your brand story is precious, and Obama is finding out that when there are loose ends in your life, that story can unravel easily inside a media-driven culture.

It’s not about manipulation – actually the opposite – it’s about integrity, transparency, and authenticity. After all, do YOU want to tell your story, or would you prefer leaving it to your critics, the press, or chance?


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  1. It's been surreal watching much of this unfold.

    I'm not an Obama supporter but there's been a certain amount of interest on my part as to how his candidacy would unfold.

    I think in his efforts to define and brand himself he has underestimated the threats presented by the opposition.  He attempted to be conciliatory to Wright in making his first major response in Philadelphia.  Apparently he did so without speaking heart to heart with Wright to see if Wright was going to remain quietly underground and not seek to promote himself at the expense of Obama's campaign.  That was a lapse of judgement that doesn't reflect well on a candidate seeking to be the chief negotiator for the US.

    Assessing threats, preparing for them in advance with contingencies and then living in a manner that is transparent and consistent with one's stated values may be branding, but in the end it's just good old fashioned honesty and living with a clear conscience and good reputation.

  2. Page 43


    "The key to effective branding is that a successful brand isn't what you say it is: it's what they it is. For instance, it doesn't matter if the local food bank is the best in the nation if word leaks out that it's giving away tainted produce. It won't matter that you're a brilliant pastor if your congregation thinks you're a hack. And it certainly won't matter that a humanitarian organization is global if nobody's ever heard of it. In other words, it's about perception.

    Phil Cooke, Branding Faith

    Sadly, Obama has been fighting negative perceptions for several weeks now.  I would say Obama's already lost his story because much of the current perception of him is negative and for many like me, beyond repair.

    It's much harder to undo a negative perception than build a good one.



  3. Great post Phil! 

    I love this: "It’s not about manipulation – actually the opposite – it’s about integrity, transparency, and authenticity. After all, do YOU want to tell your story, or would you prefer leaving it to your critics, the press, or chance?"

    So true in this web 2.0 world we live in today. It's why I think guys like Kevin Rose (digg) and Gary Vaynerchuk (WLTV) GET IT… it's all about the radical transparency with them, not spinning some story or pushing or selling a product. But the reality is we're AT LEAST 10-15 years away from seeing that kind of transparency with political officials. Unfortunately.

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