communications strategy, PR & thought leadership

Bernie Sanders, social media star: when best practices don’t matter

Sandra Stewart | July 7, 2015

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gotten a lot of media attention as an unlikely social media star—unlikely partly because many find it hard to fathom that someone their grandfather’s age can light up Reddit, but also because he’s breaking so many “rules.”

“Somehow,” the New York Times marvels, “Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old senator from Vermont, has emerged as a king of social media early in the 2016 presidential campaign, amid a field of tech-savvy contenders.

“His Facebook posts attract tens of thousands of likes and shares, and threads about him often break through to the home page of Reddit, where the cluster of topics rarely focuses on presidential election politics.”

This despite the fact that, as the Times notes, “He has not shied away from [Facebook] posts of 300 words or more,” he posts images with unsearchable text and he “rarely uses buzzy introductory text when sharing his posts.”

People seek out and share his online musings anyway. Why? Because they are authentic. Wherever Sanders speaks—on TV, in person or online—he says what he really thinks and provides blunt analyses of American possibilities and problems that most people aren’t hearing from anyone else.

As this Vox video on the Sanders social media surge puts it: “This is how Bernie Sanders is winning the Internet. He’s not speaking in the bland, lowest common denominator model of most presidential candidates. He’s like a third-party candidate who just happens to be running inside the Democratic party, which is literally what he’s doing.”

Vox damns a bit with faint praise, arguing that he’s not really trying to win (Sanders says he is). But if the senator were following social media best practices, he almost certainly would not be attracting such a passionate following—because he wouldn’t be the authentic Bernie.

The lesson for leaders of insurgent, scrappy sustainable companies is this: if you have information people are hungry for; if you are sincere, passionate and articulate in conveying it; and if you go wherever your audience is, you have what it takes to make an outsize splash. And if following the rules undermines your ability to make a genuine connection, forget ’em.


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