While globally an increased share of citizens fear we are receiving false information from both the media and governments, personal brands seem to be increasingly trusted. Professor of Corporate Communication Vilma Luoma-aho explores theories to find an explanation for how things might go with the media uproar over Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s ways of spending her free time.

One of the hottest news stories of this summer concerned Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s free-time activities. The topic is a nice one in the sense that it is not directly connected to the persistent, unpleasant themes of the pandemic, the energy crisis, nor even to the current labour problems in health care, but it is a challenging one that hits the most valuable personal brand in Finland.

There has been discussion on whether Marin, as prime minister, had jeopardised national security, whether she has appropriate friends in general, and what words were heard on the videos. Everybody seems to have something to say on the topic, so from the viewpoint of democratic participation our society is doing very well – at least in terms of active discussion.

In branding, mental images play a central role. The aim is to construct a brand so that it activates the desired mental images and attach the buyer to the product.

Traditional brand research focuses on the positive aspects, that is, all that could be presented in desirable mental images. Yet, a brand can also be spoiled by mental images.

Even great brands have been shattered because the wrong kind of fans or images, like in the case of Burberry at the beginning of the millennium attracting football hooligan fans, or Pepsi associating with riot police and influencer Kendall Jenner in an advertisement.

When a crisis surfaces, people discuss what should be discussed

Through Sanna Marin, Finland’s brand has got a bright new star, who personifies all the freedom and wellbeing that Finnish society represents. No Finnish brand could ever achieve what Marin can with a few tweets. Marin’s loyal followers approve of everything she does, and mostly she is also doing things that citizens consider right: looking after public health, leading the country into NATO, and negotiating about our future.

In addition to national security, the discussion has focused on what is an appropriate way for the prime minister to celebrate, and what is not.

Discussion in the media has addressed different aspects of this, but much of the discussion is essentially meta-discussion: people are discussing what should be discussed.

Should we discuss whether our national security was endangered? Would it be good to talk about who would be appropriate company for the prime minister?

Sanna Marin’s free-time incident can be called a “paracrisis”: It is smaller, more focused on reputation and less far-reaching than an actual crisis, but it has potential to grow to such extent as well when kindled and fuelled adequately.

The Finnish media suffers from a self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome: Sanna Marin uses social media skilfully and has attracted media attention first in positive ways, with discussion about her jewellery, garments, and festivals she attends. But at the same time, she has focused attention on herself also for questionable social media posts from the state’s official representative premises by her acquittances.

What kind of crises persist in the public mind?

Now that citizens’ trust in the media is decreasing at the global level, as the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 indicates, we can ask how this particular scandal affects the prime minister. Is “Sanna the Party Animal” a new brand, the mental images of which will prevent her from continuing in her post after the next election?

According to crisis arena theory, a crisis is likely to spread from one media platform to another especially:

In Marin’s case, almost all these criteria were met, so the topic may remain in public discussion for a longer time.

So, how has the uproar affected Sanna Marin’s personal brand?

Hardly at all. She has gained further global popularity, she is now even more popular in her home country than before, and her Teflon image has been enriched with more human characteristics. The relative insignificance of the matter can be partly explained, though, by the fact that the commotion did not hit Marin’s core competence – her official duties as prime minister – but dealt with her free-time activity, which is only partly relevant in this respect. Research shows that crises and commotions that hit an organisation’s main functions or main products are most disastrous.

While globally an increased share of citizens fear we are receiving false information from the media as well as from governments, personal brands seem to have become more trusted. Perhaps the next risk concerns Marin’s supporters: Is the support becoming so fanatic that it will turn against the personal brand in the future?

Vilma Luoma-aho

The writer is Professor of Corporate Communication and a vice dean from Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics. Her research is focused on corporate and public sector communication. She was the first Finn appointed to the board of an association consisting of the communication directors of the world’s largest corporations. Moreover, her Instagram account includes such questionable material as dance videos.

More on crisis arena theory in a recent book “Social Media and Crisis Communication”.

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