As USA Today said, SXSW this year “features a heavy dose of politics.” But that shouldn’t seem odd. As one attendee pointed out, “SXSW is the place for great thinkers and innovators … at this moment in history, how can SXSW not dive into politics?”

Politics is nothing new at SXSW. Over the years, Al Gore, Chelsea Clinton, and President Obama have all spoken. This year, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke on the cancer moonshot. But the kickoff speaker this year was Senator Cory Booker, coming back to SXSW for the opening keynote, followed by an interview with Google’s senior counsel on civil and human rights, Malika Saada Saar.

If you saw coverage of the session, you probably saw words like “preach” and “emotional,” and it definitely felt like church to me. Senator Booker was definitely personal and inspirational, an eminently quotable speaker who delivered his comments with passion. One great passage was on how patriotism and success demand more than tolerance:

 “I tolerate a cold. That’s not what we were called to do…. Patriotism, which is love of country, I think mandates a love of one another. We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to agree with each other. But tolerance says, ‘I’m just going to stomach your right to be different, and if you disappear off the face of the earth, I’m no worse off, or better off.’ But love says, ‘I see you, I recognize your dignity, I recognize your value, I recognize your worth, and I know that if we’re going to make it, we have to … be together in a larger mission, a mission larger than ourselves. Tolerance builds fences between people; love rips them down. … Tolerance says, ‘I don’t need you;’ love says, ‘you are essential to my well-being.”

But what’s all this have to do with SXSW Interactive, and with digital pharma?

Especially during the interview, Booker got more specific. (Except when asked if he was running for president in 2020.) He pointed out that he didn’t see a separation between politics and business or the rest of life – that all decisions, however small and seemingly unrelated, were in truth political. And he offered some thoughts on social and digital media and their application in today’s world.

  • He said, as CNN related, that he sees more power in a Facebook post than a speech on the Senate floor.
  • However, he said, “What bothers me is, while I am a big proponent and lover of technology and innovation, I am not a lover of the separations that are becoming easier and more convenient, where we can create our own virtual bubble around our lives.”
  • Booker also noted that the ongoing growth of technology gives more power and voice to some, but takes more from the underprivileged and marginalized, making it more important than ever to work for the greater good with the opportunities we’re given.

Here’s how I related that to our work as pharma marketers: Digital communications let us speak more directly, and more broadly, to the people who need our information than traditional media often can. But we can’t forget that the people who need help most – the sickest, poorest or oldest – may not have that access. So when addressing the health needs of those populations, we need to be cognizant of how to speak to them directly, and how to use social media to engage those who can help them.

The chief programming officer for SXSW, Hugh Forrest, said that the government track of sessions at SXSW was “more robust this year.” As he told ABC, ““There is definitely a degree of politics or political focus that may not have been there in previous years.” Booker’s keynote reflects that, but it also points out truths that can relate not only to our personal and political lives, but also to our work as pharma marketers.