Political Makeovers Carry Risks

Between the impending U.S. Senate primaries and the beginnings of the Boston mayoral race, we’re in the midst of a white-hot political season. That can only mean one thing: get ready for some reinvention.

Politicians have to strike a difficult balance — appearing anchored to their fundamental principles, while adapting to the times. Those who stand still risk looking ossified and out-of-date (witness Republicans’ post-election self-flagellation, including potential presidential hopeful Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s advice to “stop being the stupid party”). And those who excel at flexibility court charges that they’re flip-flopping opportunists, as in the GOP’s memorable 2004 television ad featuring then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry windsurfing — back and forth, back and forth — off the coast of Nantucket.

To thread this “reinvention needle,” politicians often turn to high-priced consultants to shape their message and spit-polish them in time for the election. The best are useful sounding boards, helping pols find the right language to express their values and connect with the public. But others essentially steamroll their candidates, shoehorning their unique voices into a poll-tested mold that’s (purportedly) palatable to voters. And that’s where a lot of modern politics goes wrong.

A classic example is Al Gore’s decision in the 2000 election — when he was desperate to get out from underneath Bill Clinton’s shadow — to hire legendary Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. Competition to land Shrum as a consultant was so fierce, the media labeled it the “Shrum Primary.” (I worked with Shrum two years later, when he consulted for Robert Reich’s gubernatorial bid, for which I served as press secretary.) Part of what came with Shrum was his shtick — his vision that what really connected with American voters was saber-rattling liberal rhetoric about “working families” and “the people vs. the powerful.”

The problem was, no one bought it. Gore, known to Americans for well over a decade as a friendly-but-bland policy wonk obsessed with the environment, was simply not believable as a populist cowboy, ready to ’rassle with George W. Bush. There are limits to how far your brand can stretch. If you go too far, you’ve lost your credibility.

Despite Gore’s heartbreak in Florida and the loss of the presidency, there is a happy ending to his brand reinvention. Returning to his passion of environmental advocacy and “re-rebranding” himself as the dedicated policy wonk he always was, he regained his mojo, became the subject of an Oscar-winning film and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The public can sniff out a fake a mile away. But if you’re honest with yourself about your real interests, personality, and brand, you can flourish.

A politician without a steady moral compass is a frightening prospect, but so is one who never learns or changes. So when you see candidates like Stephen Lynch making an appeal to unenrolled voters on the basis of his ironworker past and conservative voting record — yet nonetheless embracing gay marriage — you’re witnessing the right kind of reinvention.

Pols can’t, and shouldn’t, attempt Frankenstein-style personality transplants. It never goes well, and voters never believe it. Yet too many fall back on consultants who change them too much, or (at the other end of the spectrum) bury their heads in the sand and refuse to change at all. Reinvention, when done right, is a sign that candidates know who they are, but aren’t afraid to listen and grow. And isn’t that what we want in a leader?

This post originally appeared on the Boston Herald website on April 14, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.