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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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    When there is so much unknown story (as is the case with Obama) it's easy to fill in the blanks in an attempt to construct a composite based on suppositions. Even before the Wright flap, the fabric of his story felt a little thin and dangled too many loose ends. So much about him remains undefined, therefore, any and every association will be called into consideration as a means of defining a man whose slight political record cannot.

    This fiasco will force him to make statements that are far more definitive. It could actually work in his favor if he handles it with an in your face approach. But at this juncture, his approach and presenation will have to be as strong as his words because he's laid low for so long. Proving he can take heat, respond decisively, and clear the field to command focous on the real issues we want a President to address would establish who he is and would, I believe, turn the tide. We'll see. He doesn't have my vote, but he does have my attention.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.



  4. 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.

  5. How can one (Obama) control their story when they are lying or fabricating.  In Obama's first public interview about Mr. Wright, he basically endorsed everything the esteemed preacher said…now, because it is more expedient, politically, he has come out and made a 180, blasting his former mentor…as if this is very noble of him.  The more Obama talks, the more his brand moves off course.  And as Wright said, "A politician's gotta do what a politician's gotta do."  "Integrity, transparency and authenticity,"……mmh.

  6. While reading the many, many articles on the Obama/Wright divorce, it suddenly occurred to me that Obama's brand isn't the only one that has been damaged. Wright's brand has been affected, as has the brand of the church and those who attend it.

  7. If my pastor said anything remotely close to what Wright has said…I would be out of there in a flash.  "A little leaven, leaveneth the whole lump."(!)  This is a malignant issue and has done more damage to race relations…setting America back many years.  Sticking one's head in the sand only amplifies the damage to all races.

  8. From the Wall Street Journal: Reader Howard Portnoy quips: "Wright and Obama both need to undergo the 12-step program at Narcissists Anonymous. Wright is angry at Obama for distancing himself from his former pastor–in other words, it's all about Wright. Obama is angry at Wright for being inconsiderate of him–in other words, it's all about Obama. These two deserve each other."  From me:  We deserve such sandy political and spiritual leaders that, despite education and elevated positions, apparently have no rock foundations?

  9. Obama's split with Wright was inevitable.  The only thing in doubt was the tone of the split.  Obama tried to melt gracefully away from Wright without alienating black voters or harming the church.  Wright set the current bitter tone by being a typical narcissistic public figure caught misbehaving.  Wright sulked for a while under chastisement.  Now he's come out as unrepentant and self-righteous as ever.  If you're surprised, then you’re a serial abuser’s dream come true.  It's not like Wright's pattern is a new one.    This is what they do – over and over again like a broken record.

    If it hadn't been Wright, Obama would still have parts of "his story" he couldn't control or spin. 

    You can write your story, spin your story and tell your story any way you want to.  In the information age, you’ve got less control of “your story” than ever before.   Ask the unfortunate Howard Dean.  One day he was the darling of pop media, the next day he became a laughing stock.  Why?  Just because he became less than elegant at an enthusiastic political rally?  The “Dean Scream” wasn’t a moral failure, nor was it a platform item.  He was simply a bit gauche – ONCE.  

    Consistently telling your own story is a pipe dream.

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