Since the November 17 release of former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin's autobiography, Going Rogue, I have been fascinated by the crowds and controversy that have followed the author at every appearance on her current publicity tour. Now that she is again a private citizen after being a local and state office-holder and former U.S. vice presidential candidate, I have also been intrigued by her unique challenge to recapture her personal brand as a potential future force multiplier.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make it clear that I do not represent, nor have ever met Gov. Palin -- and have not read her book. Like most Americans, all I know about her is from media reports. In fact, throughout my career, I have chosen to stay neutral and non-partisan, following the lead of several high-profile ministry clients who have remained faithful to their calling by intentionally and diligently maintaining a pastoral, rather than political influence.
But as she rolled into the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex yesterday to whistle-stop at a local bookstore near my home, I further pondered whether the tsunami of response to her new book reflects whether she has struck a nerve or is creating a wave. Her Zeitgeist role appears to have morphed into an issues watershed, signaling a deeper dynamic and division in our country that transcends faith, politics -- and even the liberal-conservative continuum. At the end of the day, an individual's reaction to Gov. Palin says more about that person's worldview than any of these other labels and qualifiers.
If indeed Gov. Palin is trying to solidify a foundational brand for the future, the title of her memoir seems to be counter-intuitive. The dictionary definition of "rogue" includes,"a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel;" and the adjective forms are not much more suitable, such as "no longer obedient, belonging, or accepted and hence not controllable or answerable; deviating, renegade." With a denotation conveying such negative baggage, no doubt she is leveraging the political connotation of the word, namely a maverick -- a frequent metaphor of the Republican presidential campaign.
Reclaiming the Dialogue -- Image or Identity?
It is axiomatic in today's ever-changing media culture, that when the dialogue starts to go the other way, it is hard to get it back, which is a fitting portrayal of the challenges Gov. Palin has faced ever since her sudden debut on the national stage. Beyond the obvious and inevitable self-inflicted posturing problems -- including depth perception -- over the ensuing 16 months, it appears she has had to overcome two handicaps not of her making.
First, was a weekly caricature on Saturday Night Live (SNL), as Tina Fey's masterful portrayal defined her for many -- especially younger audiences -- and further marginalized her cultural relevance, beginning with the first, "I can see Russia from my house!" The second was as a candidate. In her recent author interviews, Gov. Palin alleges that the campaign crafted her image into what they wanted or needed her to be, by telling her what to wear, how to think and what to say in accordance to their understanding of voter preference.
As a result of this dual wholesale messaging, arguably the governor did not lose the national dialogue momentum, but rather never had opportunity to initiate it beyond inaccurate or misrepresentative third party characterizations. As the old P.R. adage states, "It's not that people don't know so much, but that they know so much that isn't so." Reframing the picture from perception to reality of a public persona with integrity like Gov. Palin requires projecting an identity that already exists -- not manufacturing an image -- emphasizing positive aspects of her influence and impact.
Gov. Palin's "reloading, not recreating" barnstorming tour appears intended to showcase retail message points to allow the American people to directly observe her true character, which observably includes a dynamic and organic dimension of faith. In that context, her talk show secret weapon seems likely to be her authenticity and transparency. In interview after interview, she has revealed a charming -- perhaps disarming -- personality, exuding a graceful, winsome confidence that puts even detractors at ease and ardent adversaries on their heels.
This was perhaps best illustrated in Gov. Palin's initial pre-taped interview for Oprah. At the top of the program, Oprah Winfrey -- who had endorsed fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama in the campaign -- gave her guest a stiff, conflicted hug, wrapping one arm around her back while holding up the other hand and pushing her away. But as the program cut away for the first commercial break, the host reached across and grabbed the governor's hand in a friendly, almost "hey girlfriend" gesture.
As a public relations practitioner and counselor, I regularly have opportunity to provide media representation and brand positioning for individuals and organizations at the intersection of faith and culture. In that context, a national religion writer recently asked me whether the launch of Going Rogue and resulting media appearances will establish Gov. Palin as a future Christian leader, in addition to being a political force - or force of nature? But that begs a preliminary question, "What is a Christian leader?"
Our firm currently represents several women who definitely qualify for that title, including Anne Graham Lotz, Joni Eareckson Tada and Jill Briscoe -- each of whom are identified by their faith, which in turn frames the ministries they lead as their life's work. Their primary focus is equipping and empowering the spiritual lives of their constituencies, encouraging them to further to make a difference in our world.
Conversely, Gov. Palin's faith informs her worldview, which subsequently influences her politics. She is a politician who models Christian behavior and values to culture and practices faith in action through a message that resonates with people of faith, including the importance of family and the culture of life.
So who are these people standing in line to buy Gov. Palin's book? Obviously, they include individuals who don't watch SNL or working moms who have to put their kids to bed by 8 p.m., for whom she is an inspiration for juggling home and career. Contrary to what talk show hosts and pundits on both sides of the increasingly polarized media debate would lead us to believe, these people are neither right nor wrong -- they just are -- and their ranks seem to be growing.
Perhaps the better query would be, "Does Sarah Palin represent principle or agent in today's cultural divide?"
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a full-service public relations agency that provides cross-over media liaison emanating from or targeted to the Christian market. With more than 33 years' experience influencing public opinion, Mr. Ross' mission is to "restore faith in media," by providing Christian messages relevance and meaning in mainstream media.