Obama’s Social Media Team Tries to Widen Audience for State of the Union Address



WASHINGTON, Jan 19 — The Obama administration has revamped its digital communications strategy in an attempt to reach new audiences for the State of the Union speech — a classic old-media event — and sidestep the skeptical filter often applied by White House reporters. President Obama’s aides have drafted a team of Internet-savvy staff members to produce a series of videos, digital op-eds, Facebook and Twitterposts, and six-second animated GIFs to capture a larger audience than the mainstream media’s shrinking number of viewers and readers. They are essential tools in selling the president’s message during his last two years in office, White House officials say.

In recent announcements on college affordability, immigration and net neutrality, the president has relied on social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Medium, Vine, LinkedIn and Twitter. Last Tuesday, Mr. Obama previewed his plan for broadband access in a three-and-a-half-minute video posted on the viral content website Upworthy. “It’s still true that most people still get their news from television and big newspapers,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the president’s communications director. “But if that’s all you’re talking to, you’re missing big parts of the population. National media is going to cover a story like health care through a political lens. The average person is thinking: ‘How does that health care law affect me?’ ”

The political impact of using social media is not yet clear. Mr. Obama’s approval rating has inched up but remains no higher than 50 percent. Congress is now in Republican hands, and there is little evidence that the digital public relations campaign is helping bridge the partisan divide.  The president’s communications team has not abandoned traditional media altogether. After announcing a new Cuba policy last month, the president sat down for an interview on network television. Mr. Obama still holds occasional news conferences at the White House or discusses policy in interviews with newspaper columnists. Staff members still regularly brief Washington reporters.

But senior advisers say the White House must change with the media landscape. “To not have an aggressive social media strategy in 2015 would be the equivalent of not having an aggressive TV strategy in the 1950s,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser and the West Wing’s most vocal advocate of digital communication. “We have to go to where the conversations are already happening.”The Office of Digital Strategies is crammed into a five-office suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. The team, made up of about two dozen members, hold regular planning meetings, and few ideas are dismissed out of hand.

On Tuesday, a lime-green conference room will serve as the nerve center for the “enhanced” State of the Union speech, which people can watch on WhiteHouse.gov, complete with graphs and charts popping up in real time. People who miss the address on Tuesday will have plenty of opportunities to catch up. The digital team is preparing to flood social media channels with short clips of the speech and web links to Mr. Obama’s policy proposals. In recent weeks, Mr. Pfeiffer and others in the White House have relaxed their usually secretive approach to the address, a speech he calls an “old-school” moment that is no longer the “one must-see event of the year” for a president.

Rather than jealously guard the policy proposals the president will announce in the speech — lest they leak — the White House has already rolled them out on social media. That strategy scooped the press and generated millions of retweets well before the newspaper articles and television reports were even produced. The results have caught the attention of the president’s most senior advisers, who are increasingly turning to the digital team for guidance on how technology can help Mr. Obama better connect with the public, officials said. “Not only have the digital tools become more important in communications generally, but the people in the building want it more and are asking for it,” said Kori Schulman, the director of online engagement.

The White House used social media on Jan. 8 to reveal the president’s plan for tuition-free education at community colleges. Reporters traveling that day with the president peppered Josh Earnest, the press secretary, with questions about what they expected to be an official announcement in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 9. Would the president copy Tennessee’s free community college program? “I don’t have a lot right now on tomorrow’s events,” Mr. Earnest said. The reporters still knew nothing about the president’s plan when the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 5:16 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, the White House posted a two-minute video of Mr. Obama announcing the plan on Facebook. He had recorded it on Air Force One a day earlier, and it quickly became the most viewed video the Obama White House has ever produced, officials said.

The news eventually generated headlines in traditional newspapers and on the nightly television broadcasts. Mr. Pfeiffer said he was not yet ready to give up on the traditional news media, which still reaches many millions of people. “We also have to be in The New York Times and the evening news,” he said. “Our view is not an either-or strategy. It’s an and-both strategy.” But Mr. Pfeiffer, who recently wrote two articles for the blogging platform Medium, said he sensed that a tipping point had already been reached where digital tools were no longer optional but necessary. The digital team members themselves say that in the six years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, there has been a noticeable change in how they are perceived by their old-media colleagues. Lindsay Holst, the director of digital content, said the difference is stark: “The digital kids are less the weird kids in a cave now.”

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