Yes She Can – Miss World Takes a Page Out of Obama’s Communication Playbook

Duke Malan

Twenty-two-year-old South African medical student Rolene Strauss was crowned Miss World 2014 this week. Polarizing views on beauty contests aside, her victory has some stark lessons in masterful storytelling that advances your position. In many ways Ms. Strauss was Obama-esque in the manner she tied her personal story into a broader and more compelling narrative. She understood the importance of looking at the world and communicating from an outside-in perspective.

CNN covered her victory and includes a brief video in its article, where Jolene essentially pitches herself to the judging panel as a worthy candidate for the title.

In much the same fashion in which Obama knitted his personal story of mixed heritage, humble beginnings to Harvard, active citizenship and ascent to the White House to personify the American Dream – Strauss drew a direct line between anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, South Africa celebrating 20 years of democracy and her own journey.

She asserts “…I come from a country where people believed in a brighter future and in 2014 because of that belief South Africa is celebrating 20 years of democracy and that belief in freedom for all began in the most unlikely place, Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island… Mandela is the reason that I can speak, live and love freely in my country. Thanks to South Africa, I can live my dreams. I can study medicine and live a life of giving; I can share my passion for women’s rights, health and education…  Nelson Mandela gave hope not only to us but to people around the world.  I am honored and privileged to represent a country that means so much to so many”.

Throughout Obama’s first candidacy and during his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech which catapulted him to national attention, he has always drawn a straight line between his story and the broader American story.

As President, in his speech marking the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington at the “Let Freedom Ring” Ceremony he continued this effective approach to narrative.  Referring to Martin Luther King, other civil rights leaders and citizens who marched: “And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed… the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry… Because they marched, city councils changed … and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed”.

There are some important lessons communicators can draw from this approach to storytelling:

  • Too often organizations and communicators focus on “key messages” and “telling our story”. As President Obama and Ms. Strauss know acutely well, you need to make audiences part of the story to truly win their hearts and minds.
  • Tap into the mood of the times: Obama tapped into the public’s deep frustration with the Bush Administration and a desire for change and Ms. Strauss gave the “rainbow nation” narrative a fresh coat of paint in the week that marked the one year Anniversary of Mr. Mandela’s death.

Artful reputation managers and communicators are sometimes referred to as spin doctors. Ms. Strauss, a fourth year medicine student, will be putting her studies on hold but may yet still be referred to by some as a doctor of sorts.

Duke Malan recently joined FleishmanHillard Hong Kong’s Corporate Affairs practice. Before joining Fleishman he led reputation management and media relations at global insurer Discovery Limited, worked for Barclays Africa Group’s retail banking division as well as a PR consultancy where notable clients included BMW and South Africa’s finance and mining ministries.