Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be rebranding herself. According to the New York Times, the woman in charge of remaking her image, Kristina Schake, played a similar role in repositioning Michelle Obama as the First Lady’s communications chief.
This is nothing new. Communications executives and publicists have been creating and remaking brand reputations for eons. There’s certainly nothing unusual about a company or a politician seeking to improve their image.
As someone who has led quite a few corporate rebranding efforts, I can tell you they’re as much about changing the company as they are about changing its image. After all, it does more harm than good to set certain expectations and fail to deliver on them.
That same logic applies to individuals, as well. Sooner or later, a brand that doesn’t reflect reality will come back to haunt you. That’s just common sense. At least it used to be.
Today, anyone can easily create a personal brand that represents a somewhat distorted view of reality. While that might be disingenuous and destructive, it doesn’t seem to stop people from doing it.
In her presidential campaign video, Ms. Clinton says, “Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion.” That’s pretty ironic, considering that Ms. Clinton is clearly one of “those at the top.”
The Clinton’s are reportedly worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million to $100 million, and both Hillary and Bill are sought-after speakers who each get an average of about $200,000 per gig. You’ve got to admit, that’s a lot of dough for a champion of the people. Doesn’t that sound just a bit hypocritical to you? It sure does to me.
Meanwhile, as Ms. Clinton began her campaign with a series of small business roundtables in Iowa, she brought the conversation around to immigration policy. To relate to everyday Americans with roots back to the old country, she talked about how her grandparents all immigrated to America:
“If we were to just go around this room there are a lot of immigrant stories. You know, all my grandparents came over here,” she said, “So I sit here and I think, well, you’re talking about the second-third generation, that’s me, that’s you.”
But an apparently well-researched BuzzFeed article – complete with Census records – says three of Clinton’s four grandparents were actually born in the U.S. This alleged ancestry malfunction is corroborated by a biography of Ms. Clinton and other sources, according to the article.
Now, let’s be realistic for just a moment. Clearly, Ms. Clinton has the political clout and backing to overcome critics who might claim she’s being somewhat disingenuous or hypocritical. But you and I don’t. And if you think this kind of scrutiny is reserved for presidential hopefuls, think again.
What was once a carefully crafted and credible reputation can come crashing down in a heartbeat like a house of cards. And the more visible you make yourself, the more likely that is to happen.
Consider Joshua Newman, a budding young entrepreneur who invested in tech startups while a student at Yale. The enterprising Newman went on to found a movie-production company and co-found several fitness gyms in Manhattan, according to an in-depth piece in New York Times, which had profiled Newman in the past.
It seems that Newman is a pretty adept self-promoter. His Twitter profile says he’s a CEO, VC, founder and “former film financier / tech entrepreneur wunderkind.” His LinkedIn profile includes media quotes that call him “A Silicon Valley pro,” “An Internet elder statesman,” and someone who “epitomizes the light-speed nature of the Net.”
That may be all well and good but the Times story presents a completely different side of the man. Newman is reportedly being sued for a total of about $2 million by a number of former investors who claim that “he has a history of bouncing checks, unpaid debts and misrepresented intentions,” among other things.
While the article quotes Newman as saying he’s been trying to repay investors and “make everyone whole” for years, it also indicates that another group of investors from which he raised $1.2 million think he may have used their money to repay older debts. That sounds sort of Ponzi-ish, if you ask me.
Now, I have no idea if these allegations are true, but even if they are, I doubt if the guy set out to do anything nefarious. Perhaps he just overpromised and couldn’t deliver. Next thing he knew, things had gotten out of hand. It just shows what a slippery slope this sort of thing can be.
If I were advising Ms. Clinton, Mr. Newman, or anyone else, I would say this: Your brand is your promise. It sets expectations for behavior and performance. You must deliver on that promise. If you don’t, the outcome can be far worse than if you’d never put yourself out there to begin with. That’s all there is to it.
Related: 10 Behaviors of Smart People