Once again Greta Thunberg has demonstrated her PR genius. She just met a researcher from neighboring Norway for a conversation on the border between their two countries. And Greta didn’t waste any time posting the pictures of their meeting on Twitter and Instagram. In one of the photos, the two are seen greeting each other by touching their right feet together over the Morokulien border crossing – without physically entering the other’s country.
According to Thunberg, she was interviewing the climate and environmental scientist Per Espen Stoknes for an upcoming BBC documentary series. However, because she was not allowed to enter Norway, she and Stoknes decided to stay on their own sides of the Swedish-Norwegian border.
Greta Thunberg is without a doubt one of those very rare individuals with an almost unique talent for self-marketing, although much controversy surrounds the role she played in developing her distinctive PR strategy and how much of her rise to global fame she owes to her mother and professional PR consultants.
Distinctive brand identity and positioning
Like other masters of self-marketing before her, Greta Thunberg has turned her hair into an unmistakable visual trademark. Donald Trump has his outrageous, shiny golden combover; fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had his powdered braid; and Albert Einstein’s hair underscored his image as the quintessential nutty professor. And Greta? She has her pigtails.
Hardly any young women still choose to wear their hair in pigtails at the age of 17. Greta’s pigtails are designed to emphasize her childlike nature, as is her slight figure and the fact that she refuses to wear make-up. Her famous outburst of anger when she addressed the United Nations was also a key element of her self-stylization – she spoke more like a fuming child than an adult: “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Her childlike aspect is important because she wants to speak for the children of this world who have had their lives and their futures stolen from them by adults.
She stylizes herself to an unbending idealist, that is her positioning. Her motto could well be the words traditionally attributed to Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Even her harshest critics credit her idealism, as if idealism were something to be admired. After all, history is full of idealists who did more harm than good.
Perfectly staged PR
Greta Thunberg’s PR image is so perfect that her critics seek to portray her as nothing more than a puppet controlled by professional PR consultants. No one could deny that she is supported by a team of PR professionals, but it still remains to be seen whether she was “made” by them or has her own natural talent for self-marketing. In reality, it is probably a mixture of both.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Greta always manages to produce perfect pictures for her public relations campaign, just like when she set off for the United Nations climate summit in New York on September 23, 2019, to warn the world of its impending doom. As the world’s leading eco-evangelist, she did not fly, she set sail on the ocean-going yacht Malizia II. It was a powerful media spectacle of global proportions: the fragile child plunging into the life-threatening Atlantic currents to prevent the apocalypse at the very last minute. There was no question her voyage would dominate the front pages and grab the headlines around the world.
Turning weaknesses into strengths
In any case, an adept PR strategy involves skilfully recasting obvious weaknesses as strengths. Just like the self-marketing genius Stephen Hawking, who embraced his disability (ALS) as a core component of his marketing strategy (the cover of his bestseller depicted him in a wheelchair), Greta incorporates her own disability as a central feature of her self-promotion. It is widely known that she suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and she is completely open about her condition: “I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black or white.” But what Greta and her supporters have done is transform a weakness into a strength. When a reporter asked her whether living with Asperger’s syndrome made her life more difficult she responded by saying that her autism “means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.” On her Twitter bio, she originally described herself as a “15 year old climate activist with Asperger’s.”
All of this became part of the Greta Thunberg story and was enthusiastically communicated by her sympathetic supporters in the media. As one paediatric psychiatrist explained in an interview: “Without Asperger’s, she would never have made it this far. Let’s not forget, teenagers do not normally focus so narrowly on a single topic; they are usually highly animated and easily distracted by a host of different influences. But Greta has a kind of tunnel vision, she focuses entirely on this one topic. People are aware of climate change, but don’t really do anything about it. At the same time, Asperger’s sufferers can’t stand contradictions, so Greta cannot understand why people are not doing more. And that’s also why she is so unflinching and stubborn.”
Surrounding yourself with celebrities
Like others who want to become famous, Greta likes to surround herself with celebrities. She meets Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, statesmen like Barack Obama and other leading figures from the worlds of business, politics and show business. By doing so, she is again exploiting a proven PR strategy that has been knowingly used again and again by other masters of self-marketing – from Andy Warhol and Oprah Winfrey to Kim Kardashian – to strengthen their own brands. And even when she doesn’t actually meet someone – Donald Trump, for example – she turns not wanting to meet them into a huge PR story. And hardly anyone bothers to mention the fact that Trump would never have agreed to meet her anyway. Despite their differences, as masters of the art of self-publicity, Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg have more in common than one might think.
A desire to provoke, a focus on publicity stunts that produce a constant stream of stories and images, an ability to redefine weaknesses as strengths and integrate this into a coherent PR story, and finally an appreciation of the value of visual trademarks (e.g. the pigtails) as a key component of a successful positioning strategy – these are all characteristics of highly professional self-marketing.
Rainer Zitelmann is a historian and sociologist. His book Die Kunst, berühmt zu werden – Genies der Selbstvermarktung von Albert Einstein bis Kim Kardashian (English: The Art of Becoming Famous – Geniuses of Self-Marketing from Albert Einstein to Kim Kardashian) has just been published in Germany. Zitelmann was the owner and managing director of one of Germany’s leading PR agencies for 15 years.