Showbiz Politics

A book By Dr Kathryn Cramer Brownell titled “Showbiz Politics” kick-started a terrific debate at the JFK Summer School in New Ross, Co. Wexford Recently.

The debate focused not only on the role that celebrity plays in getting a politician elected, but also on the role that media plays in creating celebrity politicians, and the importance of media in USA and Ireland for sometimes different reason.

Kathryn argued that JFK didn’t have the money to win the presidential nomination in the usual way, so he created an entirely new approach. By creating excitement about his candidacy, by introducing family members (especially his wife Jackie and his brother Bobby) and by cleverly using TV advertising, he created a ‘celebrity factor’ around himself which resulted in massive crowds turning up to hear him speak. Because his father had been a Hollywood executive, the family understood the power of showbiz and celebrity, and the rest is history.

In the UK, it was the birth of Sky News that was the game changer for politicians and celebrity. Until 1989, politicians rarely appeared on TV in the UK. Their voices were known because of radio coverage, but there were no ‘celebrities’. In fact, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, she did relatively few TV interviews. The arrival of Sky News changed all that. The new station was hungry for news and wanted to do things differently. That included seeking comment and opinion from politicians. It brought them into the homes of people in the UK and made ’celebrities’ of them. They were now, all, identifiable throughout the UK.

In Ireland, the story was a little different. Perhaps the first evidence of an understanding of the value of celebrity, was when the Labour party, in 1969, brought three celebrity commentators into their ranks and put them forward for election, successfully. They were Conor Cruise O’Brien, Dr David Thornley and Justin Keating. This practice is still in evidence to this day with GAA players in particular being a favourite of political parties, and most recently TV ‘personalities’ like Mairead McGuinness and George Lee.

In modern day USA, the introduction of Cable TV was the game changer. Ronald Regan had appealed to a broad audience and sought popularity, but the introduction of cable made it possible to now focus on loyalty instead. Build a smaller cohort of loyal followers and they can create that dynamic impact for you.

And then there is the question of charisma which, I honestly believe, is vital for a politician. But, speaking with my PR and Comms hat on, the charisma has to not only be evident when the

politicians is ‘in the room’ but must also translate to television. Bill Clinton the President of the USA undoubtedly had it, Tony Blair the Prime Minister of the UK definitely had it, Jacynda Ardern in New Zealand had it in spades, as did Charles J. Haughey the Irish Prime Minister.

And what of the importance of a ’look’? German Chancellor Angela Merkle decided that her look would always be the same so that her clothes and hair never detracted or distracted from what she was saying. Boris Johnson, former UK Prime Minister, very deliberately created a look of dishevelment which made him instantly recognisable (he would consciously toss his hair and loosen his tie before entering a room). Mick Wallace TD and his crumpled pink t-shirts have the same effect, as did Tony Gregory’s refusal to wear a tie in the Dail chamber when he was an elected representative. Each of these ‘signals’ draws attention to a politician and makes them more memorable.

Nowadays the power of television is receding somewhat, and we are seeing the rise of micro-celebrity. Celebrities who have developed on social media who might be unknown to the more mainstream media.

Back in 1960, Nixon accused John F Kennedy of style over substance. History proved him very wrong. Whatever about being a celebrity, it is undoubtedly important for politicians to be instantly recognisable but, to be of value to us, the electorate, they must also be passionate about policy change.

The panel at the JFK Summer School was made up of Dr Kathryn Cramer Brownell (Purdue University), Terry Prone (Communications Clinic), Gerard Howlin (public affairs commentator) and Dermot Murnaghan (former Sky News presenter). It was moderated by journalist Sarah Carey.

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