Fourteen years ago, Barack Obama wasn’t a respected world figure or the first Black U.S. President. He was a rookie U.S. Senator running an inspirational, insurgent campaign for President against favored Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton. He’d climbed to even in national polls—and split early primaries—but the one-two punch of former White House residents Bill and Hillary Clinton was a massive barrier to overcome.
Then, 12 days after Obama climbed to even, top Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama’s campaign. “With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group and straight against gay,” Kennedy said during a rally. That short statement gave validation to Obama’s claims of being a transformational leader, despite Clinton’s vast experience in politics.
“Obama’s campaign had momentum before Senator Kennedy’s endorsement, but it’s hard to overstate the impact of the endorsement,” said Real Clear Politics Senior Polling Editor Kavon Nikrad. “Obama had been favorably compared to JFK, Kennedy’s older brother. Kennedy was the party’s Liberal Lion, a longtime Clinton ally, and the face of the most important political family in America for the second half of the 20th century.”
The principle of letting others tell your story boosted Obama to the Democratic Party nomination and eventually to the White House. Letting others tell your story for you can:
- Validate existing claims, as happened with Obama in 2008 and takes place in business when investors buy into companies who claim to have the next big product or idea.
- Spread your message faster than if you did it on your own. Obama could only make so many speeches in a day, and eventually, people would’ve tuned him out.
- Protect against attacks on your brand. Obama’s campaign brilliantly deflected attacks on his foreign policy views and his relationship with a former anti-war terrorist.
In the Internet age, third-party validators are critical to success
When I was in business school almost 20 years ago, the rule of thumb was that people who have a great restaurant experience will tell one person. Customers who have a bad experience will tell 10. Today, those numbers are exponentially larger thanks to the Internet; and critics can cause anyone to have a bad day, week or career. Therefore, any campaign—political or otherwise—must earn significant validation from third-party backers early and often.
Former President Donald Trump used this strategy to win the White House in 2016. A prolific self-campaigner, he still sought endorsements from everyday people and leading influencers alike. Then-Senator Jeff Sessions’ early 2016 endorsement deflated Senator Ted Cruz’s credibility with immigration hawks and brought Trump significant Tea Party support leading up to Super Tuesday primary elections. During the general election, Trump’s campaign used Facebook’s algorithms to create mini-endorsements through millions of shares, likes and clicks, promoting Trump’s message to millions more in what a former Facebook executive described as “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”
The most powerful validation comes from people involved in your organization. Everyday voters are far more valuable to politicians than even the most influential endorsements and national media. Without sales and happy customers, a company goes out of business; without satisfied staff, it has a low ceiling for growth. Vice President Kamala Harris saw this with her White House primary run, when an excellent and widely-covered campaign launch was dragged down by inconsistent policy positions, internal disorganization, and, eventually, a lack of trust among voters.
Endorsements are most powerful when they appeal to the right segment of your target audience. In 2008, Obama had the young vote wrapped up; Kennedy’s endorsement was key to getting older voters, who trusted Kennedy and his family’s legacy. In 2016, Cruz was still running strong with very conservative voters, so Sessions’ endorsement was key to shifting that support. This principle is why athletes and Hollywood stars are paid millions for endorsements, and why lobbyists are paid six-figure salaries. Their voices matter to a critical segment of the people who are buying your products and services, pushing your policy or voting for you.
Protect yourself with other people’s credibility
Today, anyone’s reputation can be damaged, and many people can be “canceled,” by Internet critics. Back in 2008, Kennedy’s endorsement was one of many which the Obama campaign brilliantly used to validate its claims of being a transformative, uniting campaign. The campaign also used endorsements to deflect serious and impactful criticisms which were widely covered in the press. Two stand out:
- Obama had been associated with former terrorist Bill Ayers, who in the 1970s bombed locations in the U.S. as part of the leftist Weather Underground. In his last debate with Republican nominee John McCain three weeks before the 2008 election, Obama deflected by citing others with whom he was associated, such as billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, former NATO Commander General Jim Jones and the Republican president of Northwestern University.
- During the Democratic National Convention that year, more than a dozen former U.S. military generals walked onto the stage, providing a powerful image of support for Obama’s foreign policy platform despite his lack of experience in military or world affairs.
“Endorsements of Obama helped him in different ways,” said Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. “Kennedy helped make Bill Clinton’s presidency a success, so his endorsement gave Obama momentum to steal the mantle from Hillary as the standard-bearer of American liberalism. It also gave Obama a mainstream stamp of approval to distance himself from the radical types he foolishly associated with, such as Ayers. And the other endorsements further established Obama as mainstream—many far-left could never have gotten endorsements from the figures Obama cited.”
Obama won the White House before Twitter and Facebook became political juggernauts, but the principles of protecting your brand with other people’s bragging haven’t changed. It’s simply become more important than ever.
Succeed by letting others tell your story
Whether you’re a prolific storyteller like Obama and Trump, or someone who’s less skilled in that area, you can only be so effective as your own storyteller. It’s a mistake to think your voice is the most important one for supporters and potential supporters to hear, whether you’re running for office, leading a company or trying to get a promotion.
Both Obama and Trump relied heavily on other people’s storytelling in their initial White House campaigns: endorsements to defeat primary opponents, supporters to turn out friends and family at the ballot box and the media to put their message in front of millions of people at a time. And especially for Obama—a nobody on the national scene—relying on others validated his campaign’s claims, spread his claims faster than he could on his own and protected his brand against a number of attacks. Voters clearly believed the message—not once, but twice.
Dustin Siggins is founder of the media relations firm Proven Media Solutions, and a business columnist.