‘Oprah 2020’ reflects the shift in expectations of politicians

Oprah Winfrey widely being touted to run for President of the United States in 2020 after her Golden Globes speech reinforced a trend in Western politics that started in the lead up to the election of Donald Trump.

Simply, people are fed up with politicians and the old way of doing things, particularly in the way they communicate with the public. They are exasperated by what they perceive as empty promises, spin – in some cases outright lying – and lazy platitudes. In FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap survey, politicians were considered to be the least credible sources of information – only 4% of respondents considered them to be so. An incredibly low number.

Political communicators need to understand this new reality and change the counsel they offer their clients accordingly.

The rise of political figures like Donald Trump in the United States, and Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, can be, in part, explained through their taking a strong stand on issues and their ability to say what they and the public are thinking. But it is also driven by personality.

Of course, this phenomenon is not without its complications – there continues to be huge controversy over the things that Donald Trump says and, particularly in the UK, there have been concerns that some politicians legitimise unsavoury or extreme views.

But these are trends that we ignore at our peril.

That various sections of the United States appeared to throw their support behind another candidate who has no political experience to run for the presidency in 2020 – ostensibly due to a motivational public speech – shows that people crave politicians who they think speak for them and who capture their imagination.

Many political observers and commentators feel that there will be the need for a return to a ‘safe pair of hands’ – someone with sound political experience – post-Trump. But parts of the American public clearly don’t.

And that’s the point. People are tired of the political elite. Sure, Oprah and Trump are part of their own elite, but they’re not part of the political establishment, and that’s who societies are starting to reject. And it’s not just the United States, look at the rise of Bepe Grillo in Italy, for example.

As communications consultants, there are valuable lessons for us and our industry. Gone are the days where agencies can simply put out spin on behalf of their clients. Communication between governments and corporates and their respective audiences needs to be authentic and transparent, and we have a duty to be advising our clients in this vein. Using the power of personality and celebrity can be highly impactful, if it is true to the known character or identity of a candidate or corporate leader. That’s even if a certain portion of the population finds it objectionable.

It also reinforces the need to understand who your audience is. Too often in the recent past politicians have not only got their messages wrong, but they have also been talking to the wrong audiences and through the wrong channels (see: Hillary Clinton and Theresa May).  If Oprah was priming herself for a run at the presidency – and this is very much up for debate, particularly as she has denied it in the weeks since – you could argue that the Golden Globes was exactly the right forum to do so. Using the entertainment angle, she was able to talk about the things she is good at, to an audience who are sympathetic to her causes.

Whatever your thoughts are on ‘Oprah 2020’, the message is clear: expectations of politicians have changed. A lot of Trump’s rhetoric clearly inspires certain people to believe there is a better future ahead. Perhaps Oprah inspires a similar sentiment. Does that make her a viable candidate to lead the United States? You can make your own mind up on that one.

Ben Walters, Corporate Communications and International Affairs