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HomeCase StudiesBehind Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise: ‘Her message works because it’s real’

Behind Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise: ‘Her message works because it’s real’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Activist. Political phenom. And now bona fide social and traditional media star.

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) added to her resume again after her January 21 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert delivered a massive ratings bump to match the program’s largest audience ever for a Monday.

The Late Show posted videos of her exchanges with Colbert to its YouTube page, and the clips went viral, racking up millions of views and getting picked up by left- and right-leaning news media.

Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez’s already-very-large following on social media is growing rapidly. On Twitter, she has more than 3 million followers, up from 1.54 million in December; less than six months ago, that number was just 60,000. On Instagram, she has amassed more followers – 2.4 million – than any brand in the Fortune 10 except for Apple. Amazon and Wal-Mart both have 1.5 million.

It would be easy to write off Ocasio-Cortez as a flash in the pan, even after she knocked off well-established incumbent Joe Crowley in her district’s Democratic primary last year. Just 28 years old and the youngest woman to serve in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez is already a modern Cinderella story, having worked as a bartender in Manhattan before deciding to run against Crowley.

But why has Ocasio-Cortez emerged as the freshman face of the just-sworn-in Democratic House? Public affairs pros say she is first and foremost a savvy communicator. Wyeth Ruthven, VP of public affairs in MSLGroup’s Washington, DC, office, said Ocasio-Cortez is “proving the adage that social media is just that – a social medium.” More than that, he applauds her messaging and ability to engage millennials and help them make sense of the broken political system.

“It is a cliché to compare Congress to high school, with cliques and nerds and bullies and class clowns. Ocasio-Cortez has taken that cliché and updated it for a millennial audience,” Ruthven said. “During freshman orientation, she compared Congress to Hogwarts, full of arcane rules, mystifying rituals, and very high stakes. By sharing a glimpse inside this world, she has created compelling content for her followers.”

Other experts agree that showing her personality and weaving in personal anecdotes is what makes Ocasio-Cortez so good on social channels. But they say it is her willingness to take some aggressive stances on pressing issues that makes her a true newsmaker and political force.

“She is willing to stake out positions and give a clear point of view. People have a sense of who she is and what she stands for, and so she is able to generate news and political dialogue around her,” said Eric Sedler, managing partner and founder of Kivvit. “She has an aggressiveness and feistiness, while at the time same being able to be human and vulnerable.”

In January, Ocasio-Cortez called for a 70% marginal tax rate on Americans earning more than $10 million per year. At an event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in New York, she said, “A system that allows billionaires to exist alongside extreme poverty is immoral,” adding there are “parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health.”

Polls have shown support for her tax-rate idea, which was discussed as far away as the Swiss Alps, during the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Ocasio-Cortez has also made clear her belief that climate change has to be addressed with bold solutions regardless of cost. Speaking to journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates at an event on January 21, the young lawmaker said, “The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?”

“It remains an open question if all this attention will translate into her actually being able to create viable coalitions to advance public policy,” Sedler concluded. “We shouldn’t expect to see evidence of that immediately, but I think that is what people will be watching — to see if she can do as she develops as a congresswoman.”

Three takes on what brands and public personalities can learn from AOC

“The takeaway for corporate brands is to focus on a few key traits and reinforce them consistently – and constantly,” said Ruthven, as Ocasio-Cortez has done with income inequality and climate change. “[Others] will be rewarded with brand loyalty. AOC’s brand is personable, relatable, comfortable among her friends, and indomitable with her opponents.”

“Ocasio-Cortez has succeeded by balancing the three necessary legs of the stool: a message resonant with the times, distribution via a new medium and style, and herself as a credible messenger,” said Andrew Bleeker, president and founder of Bully Pulpit Interactive. “Attempts for brands or other officials to mimic her tactics will fail without the other two legs. Leaders need to find styles appropriate for their own messages and story.”

“AOC’s message works because it’s real,” said Anthony DeAngelo, director in the Washington, DC, office of APCO Worldwide. “It’s delivered with a voice that doesn’t sound like Washington, and it runs counter to what so many expect to come from politicians today. Not every politician is an AOC — their brand and their voice may not be readymade for viral tweets and Instagram stories — but that doesn’t mean they can’t break through in today’s environment.”

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