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When the personal is political

Maximiliane Koschyk
May 10, 2017

A celebrity magazine interview is being blamed for the SPD’s failure in Schleswig-Holstein’s state elections. It’s not the first time a politician's attempt to score points with their private life has backfired.

Bildergalerie Homestories Torsten Albig
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Schulze

Is fasting good for your relationship? According to Torsten Albig, the likely outgoing premier of Schleswig-Holstein, the answer is yes. "It was a tough experience for both body and soul, but it was totally nice for our relationship," he told German celebrity magazine "Bunte" at the end of April.

His "homestory," as such reports about the private lives of famous people are called in Germany, generated a lot of attention shortly before state elections in Schleswig-Holstein, but not exactly with the desired effect. The center-left Social Democrats' (SPD) poll numbers went into a tailspin; the party picked up less than 27 percent of the vote - a result that will most likely cost Albig his job.

Criticism began raining down from the party leadership, with SPD Secretary General Katarina Barley commenting that the election in this northernmost German state didn't center on the issues, but rather "things like the premier's private life."

In his interview with Bunte, Albig talked about his separation from his wife, saying that they could no longer discuss things as equals, because she'd "become trapped in her role as a mother and housewife."

"He basically insulted a large group of voters," said Christina Holtz-Bacha, communication researcher at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. "Of course, it's not right to assume that his quote alone is responsible for the SPD's loss, but the way he expressed himself was really not very skillful."

The Schulz effect: A question of authenticity

"It's very daring to do an interview like that during an election campaign," said Lukas Otto, an expert in political psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau.

So why, then, do some politicians reveal so much about their private lives to the tabloid press? "They look at these types of homestories and the candid coverage in the United States," said Otto.

"There, the whole family, right down to the family pet, is part of the campaign," said Holtz-Bacha.

One example of this is former President Barack Obama's promise to buy his daughters a dog when they moved into the White House. France also has a tendency to focus on the private lives of political candidates, as the recent reporting about President-elect Emmanuel Macron's marriage shows.

According to political psychologist Otto, even information that appears to be negative can help a campaign. He offers the example of the "Schulz effect." After the SPD's Martin Schulz declared his intention to challenge Angela Merkel for the chancellorship, his earlier battle with alcoholism became an issue in the media. "It was a negative bit of private information that ended up having a positive effect because of his image of authenticity," said Otto, adding that voters appreciate Schulz's openness and honesty in dealing with his past.

No PR strategy can protect politicians from themselves

Whenever politicians reveal details about their lives, it's a calculated move. Many are tempted to embrace social media, but that can also backfire. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel learned that the hard way when he was mocked after posting a photo of himself sitting next to a very expensive Mercedes-Benz SUV. "The boomerang effect can end up being bigger than the attention you were originally seeking," said Otto. "In the case of Torsten Albig, the problem could be that the interview didn't come across as authentic, rather it was seen as orchestrated."

Even PR managers can't do much to counteract candidates who think they know best how to sell themselves to the public, says Holtz-Bacha. "Candidates sometimes forget that the media have a commercial interest," she said. "Just think of how Christian Wulff reacted when 'Bild' newspaper said it was going to report on his private loans." The then-German president pressured the tabloid to drop the story. His image suffered and it wasn't long before he stepped down. "If you go up with Bild, then you have to be prepared to go down with it, too," said Mathias Döpfner, the former CEO of Axel Springer, the publishing giant that owns Bild.

Bildergalerie Homestories Kai Diekmann Handy
The mobile 'Bild' boss Kai Diekmann used for his famous call with Wulff is on display in a German museumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

Giving an interview to a tabloid is no guarantee that you'll get good press. "I'm pretty sure that the people in the Bunte office knew that Albig's interview was controversial and would be a sensation, and they used that," said Holtz-Bacha.

'The private is political'

Journalist Tina Handel says there have been two German politicians who knew how to use the tabloid press - former chancellors Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder. She examines the relationship between politics and the popular press in her book "The private is political."

"Schröder always said that he needed the tabloids in order to govern," Handel said.

Over the years, the range of topics covered by the tabloids has grown. Any German politician is now aware that the private is political. Accordingly, they have to ensure that their political positions are in line with the way they behave privately, says Holtz-Bacha.

The Merkel method

But for some analysts, the end of the Schröder era also meant an end to the wave of big time German politicians playing to the tabloids. And that has largely to do with his successor, Angela Merkel. "In Merkel, we have a chancellor who keeps her private life private, and doesn't use it when campaigning," said Holtz-Bacha. Neither the media nor voters punish her for this choice. "This separation of private and political life works very well for many German politicians," said political psychologist Otto.

As the campaign season gears up ahead of September's general election, German voters are not expecting any public revelations from the chancellor or any of her challengers. "I don't see this as being a big deal for either candidate of the two main parties," said Otto. So if you're expecting the summer to bring a photo series of Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz at home or enjoying leisure time at the pool, you're likely to be disappointed.