Kristina Schake: What she did for Michelle Obama’s image

Michelle Obama seems to be everywhere these days, and her job approval ratings are through the roof. Much of the credit goes to the first lady herself — but plenty goes Kristina Schake.

Obama’s communications director, who announced Monday she’s leaving the East Wing, was a powerful behind-the-scenes advisor who made Obama even more popular than when she first came to Washington. Schake was part of the team who expanded the first lady’s traditional role to include “mom dancing” on Jimmy Fallon’s show and presenting the best picture trophy at the Academy Awards, reports our colleague Krissah Thompson.

This image released by NBC shows host JimmyFallon dressed as a mom, left, dancing with first lady MichelleObama during an appearance of "Late Night with JimmyFallon," Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 in New York. Obama returned to the show to promote her "Let's Move" campaign and to perform in a sketch called "Evolution of Mom Dancing," airs tonight at 12:35am ET on NBC. (AP Photo/NBC, Lloyd Bishop)
Jimmy Fallon and first lady Michelle Obama in a sketch called “Evolution of Mom Dancing”. (Lloyd Bishop/AP Photo/NBC)

Schake’s “expertise in strategic planning and her creativity have been invaluable not just to me but to the entire administration,” Obama said in a statement. Schake, who previously co-owned a PR firm that counted Maria Shriver among its clients, joined the staff in 2010, about the same time the first lady upped her pop culture profile. Obama continued her as a cover-model (a second Vogue cover and Better Homes & Gardens), exchanged late-night schtick with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman, and did the Dougie as Fallon (in dowdy drag) looked on in awe. Plus there’s that new FLOTUS Twitter account.

Schake “did a really great job of keeping Mrs. Obama at the forefront of the conversation but in a way that continued her ability to be accessible and relatable,” said predecessor Camille Johnston, now a vice president at Siemens Corporation. “No small feat during a presidential election cycle.”

First lady MichelleObama, wearing a hat and sunglasses, stands in line at a Target department store in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011, after doing some shopping. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Obama at a Target department store in Alexandria, Va. (Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

Obama somehow manages to be the most famous woman with a seemingly middle-class ethos. (Remember the undercover Target shopping trip?) With her vegetable garden, her kids, her bangs, appearances on “iCarly” and “Top Chef” — the brand narrative around Michelle Obama is the celebrity next door.

“When push comes to shove, consumers want someone closer to them than Jackie Kennedy,” said branding expert Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys.

Consumers/voters crave an emotional connection with a product or person, he told us, and Obama has created that bond. So far, she’s injected fresh energy into her two signature causes: childhood obesity and supporting military families, co-branding her Let’s Move! initiative with Disney, Walmart and the 2012 Olympics. The partnerships benefit both parties, said Passikoff: “It’s borrowed equity — and why not?”

First lady Michelle Obama joins school children from Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom, N.J., from left, and second from left: Jordan Leeds, age 11, Joshua Styler-Tracy, age 11, and Madisyn Goias, age 10, to harvest the summer crop from the White House kitchen garden, Tuesday, May 28, 2013, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) The first lady recently hosted children tpo help harvest the summer crop from the White House kitchen garden. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

The strategy seems to work: A December 2012 CNN-ORC poll gave Obama a 73 percent job approval rating, up 65 percent two years earlier. One reason? She rarely engages with the political media, and her favorability ratings far surpass politicians of either party.

What role did Schake play in all this? She’s not talking about that — but did tell us that for the past six months, she’s been working on a strategic plan to guide the first lady through the remainder of her second term. First up: Obama has branched out to take on urban gun violence.

For her part, Schake is headed to the private sector as chief communications officer at cosmetics giant L’Oreal USA where she’ll head media, government relations and philanthropy for the company. Does the global beauty brand need help connecting with the average American? Schake will start the job in Paris next month and eventually be based in New York.

Her job goes to Maria Cristina González Noguera, currently global vice president for another cosmetic giant, Estée Lauder Companies. The San Juan native and D.C. communications expert — known as MC to her friends — “will be an outstanding partner,” the first lady said in a statement.

This is a variation of a story that appears in Tuesday’s print newspaper and contains some elements of an earlier Web post.

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Amy Argetsinger · June 24, 2013