The 2008 American presidential election was historic. It quickly became a brutal primary, and the rhetoric from supporters of the two camps became acrimonious, with many voters caught in the middle.

Oprah Winfrey was no exception, being a prominent Black woman who was already active in politics.

In 2008, she endorsed Barack Obama during a rally at UCLA and, in doing so, addressed some of the criticisms she faced from women who felt that she was betraying a powerful cause: the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, addressing that criticism in a speech shifted the focus to the candidates as people, and had many lessons for those of us aspiring to be great communicators.

Take the Bull by the Horns

Winfrey does not mince words in her speech, opening and closing with the criticism being leveled at her:

“You know, after Iowa, some women had the nerve to tell me, ‘How could you, Oprah? How could you? You’re a traitor to your gender.’”

Rather than avoiding it, she engages with the criticism directly. She doesn’t duck the comments or return criticism to specific people. She instead simply refers to them as “narrow-minded,” highlighting the tribalistic nature of those criticisms. This is a speech about rejecting stereotypes in favor of personal opinion and choice.

We’ve often discussed communication as “community building,” which is still 100% true. However, it’s essential not to compromise yourself or your ideals to build an audience. Although sometimes challenging, it’s possible to address criticisms that might be seen as unfair to ensure the record is correct.

Here, she’s communicating something incredibly important: her right to choose whom to vote for without being drawn into identity or sectarian boundaries. She doesn’t throw this in the face of her detractors; instead, she articulates a reasonable principle:

“But the truth is, I’m a free woman. I’m a free woman. I’m a free woman. I’m a free woman. And being free means, you get to think for yourself and decide for yourself what to do. So, I say I am not a traitor. No, I’m not a traitor. I’m just following my own truth, which has led me to Barack Obama. Oh, yeah. The truth has led me to Barack Obama.”

Lean on Other Authorities

Oprah with Barack and Michelle Obama

Authority plays an exciting role in this speech because the people criticizing Winfrey are doing so because they see her as a leader from whom they have expectations. In an intelligent rhetorical turn, Winfrey cites an authority of her own: Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison.

Quoting Morrison, Winfrey says that:

“…Barack exhibits something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race, or gender and something we don’t see in any other candidate. That something,” she said, “is creative imagination. Which, coupled with brilliance, equals wisdom.”

In this four-minute speech, Winfrey diffuses the criticism of voting based on identity to argue that voting and political support are freedoms we all share. In doing this, she leverages her own experience, and the moral authority of Toni Morrison, to show that this is not simple identity politics, but thoughtful consideration of political action.

Then, in a powerful move, she moves back into the personal:

“And then, this election has just brought out the best in folks ’cause I heard from some narrow-minded folks who said I was just voting for him because he was Black. And I say, that too was insulting to me. Don’t play me small. I’m not that small. I’m not that small. Don’t play me small. I would never vote for anyone based on gender or race.”

It’s hard to tackle criticism. Go too hard on the defensive, and you’ll seem petty or unsure. Ignore it, and you’ll potentially allow untrue statements to flourish. Here, we can see what it means to tackle criticism effectively… and, it doesn’t mean simply appeasing the audience.

This is a real issue for modern marketers. In a world of always-on access and social media, it’s easy for marketers to get inundated with criticism of their brand or tactics. 

As Winfrey teaches us, it’s OK to get real, to take that criticism head-on. Does that mean you’re always right? Of course not. But it does mean that if your integrity (or the integrity of your organization or brand) is challenged, you can communicate in a way that’s honest, effective, and powerful.

Takeaways for Communicators

In the end, of course, Barack Obama won the nomination and the Presidency, while Clinton would serve as Obama’s Secretary of State.

The squabbling and accusations were quickly forgotten, as Obama and Clinton focused on their jobs over the next eight years. Yet Winfrey’s speech remains as a reminder that even unfair criticism can be addressed, passionately and humanely.

For communicators, the key takeaways are:

  • Clearly articulate what you’re responding to, and attack the criticism itself.
  • Don’t hide or downplay your feelings, but ensure they’re expressed constructively. (“Don’t play me small.”)
  • Use personal examples to add authority and authenticity.
  • When quoting an authority, let the quote reflect your opinion and bolster support for it.

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