40 million. That’s how many times a video of a first-term U.S. congresswoman speaking at a bland committee hearing has been viewed in a week – more than watched President Trump’s inauguration.
But this is no ordinary politician, this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or ‘AOC’, the 29-year old Democrat who has gone from bartender to progressive political headliner in under a year.
AOC has 3m Twitter followers and a level of interaction for a U.S. politician bettered only by President Trump. Her inaugural speech broke online viewing records. Netflix has a $10m film in the works. The iPhone even autocorrects her name.
Such rapid political celebrity is impressive, but more so is her ability to use this to dominate conversation and promote radical political ideas – like the Green New Deal.
This radical manifesto calls for 100 per cent renewable energy, universal energy efficiency, zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and the elimination of agricultural emissions, alongside social-oriented policies such as affordable access to power and universal healthcare
The merits of her ideas aside, how has she been able to come from nowhere to capture an unrivaled share of voice? What does her rise say about communicating for change in today’s environment?
In less than a year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has created her own brand. She has clearly articulated values – on social justice, political reform, climate change – and a transparent backstory that she draws on to connect with her audience and validate her political views. She lives and breathes what she says – online and in-person.
This is critical in today’s communication – whether political or business. Individuals’ personal identity, defined by specific values, is central to today’s polarized public discourse. We increasingly associate with people, brands and ideas that conform to our personal values. This applies to politics, marketing and commerce alike.
These associations are based on trust, that the people or companies we listen to have the values to authenticate what they say. Just look at the reaction to Pepsi when it tried to tie itself in with political protest in the U.S. Or the growing backlash against Google and Facebook.
Authenticity is key to trust, but it won’t alone cut through the noise on conventional and social media and connect with a target audience. This needs conviction – a definitive position, strongly and persistently presented, and a willingness to respond to (inevitable) criticism.
AOC excels here. She takes a position, explains it in compelling language, provides evidence, responds to criticism and persistently returns to the issue – making headlines and generating buzz. She deploys a message over multiple channels – social media, broadcast, events (with video posted online) to ensure wide audience reach. Importantly, she maintain a (combative) dialogue with critics rather than close off discussion.
The campaign against Amazon’s proposed New York HQ heavily promoted by Ocasio-Cortez is a case in point. The brutally honest Airbus critique of ‘no-deal Brexit’ similarly shows a clear consistent position with forceful argument cutting through far stronger than traditional, more subtle corporate communications.
Conviction cuts through, authenticity builds trust, but language is what engages and shapes understanding. AOC makes confusing topics easy to understand. She talks in straightforward language and explains complex political issues through simple human stories*.
Marketing has long known the power of stories. Using stories to explain complex political or financial issues is significantly harder, yet Ms Ocasio-Cortez is deploying them expertly.
Take the 40 million-view video – she creates an imaginary childlike ‘bad guy’ to demonstrate her case against U.S. political campaign finance laws. Compare this to UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s New Year message explaining her Brexit deal. It’s easy to see whose argument is more compelling. Complex issues don’t need complex language.
*It’s interesting that AOC has not been criticized for her language or style so far, unlike other contemporary political storytellers.
Ocasio-Cortez is not simply a political celebrity, she is an advocate of politically radical ideas – from free education to clean campaign finance, Wall Street reform to climate change.
None of these ideas are new. By themselves they are not what is capturing people’s imagination. It’s the combination in to a single ‘Big Idea’ agenda for change, which is woven through every engagement, utlising the language, conviction and authenticity outlined above.
Take that inaugural speech. In a single three-minute address against the U.S. government shutdown, she tells a story of a real constituent that incorporates immigration, living costs and government accountability together with an understanding of the concerns of her supporters.
The value of the Big Idea shows a return to popular idealism, but based on personal values. People will argue over the detail, but they engage with the idea. Indeed, the drive to articulate big goals is a first step toward achieving them. Small ideas and incremental change are not going to cut through and drive debate anymore.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not eligible to run for President until 2028, yet already she is breaking the mold of political discourse. Even Trump had a global profile and millions of followers before his political views gained credence. Whatever your views on the politics, the lessons for communication are clear.