Despite detractors, 'Ferns' appearance a win for White House

Public affairs pros tell PRWeek that President Barack Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns was a knockout, but they disagree on the level of risk involved in the White House making Zach Galifianakis a part of its healthcare communications strategy.

Public affairs pros tell PRWeek that President Barack Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns was a knockout, but they disagree on the level of risk involved in the White House making Zach Galifianakis a part of its healthcare communications strategy.  

Though conservative commentators roundly criticized it, President Obama’s presence on Between Two Ferns, in which he was mock-interviewed by the comedian and Hangover actor, was a communications success.

They disagree, however, about how risky it was to use such a platform – a semi-scripted series on the Funny or Die comedy website that has, until now, reserved the hot seat for entertainers such as pop star Justin Bieber and actor Bradley Cooper.

Jim Papa, SVP and MD of Global Strategy Group’s Washington, DC, office, says "anytime an elected official ventures into comedy, they are on treacherously thin ice."

"Most PR pros would have shied away from doing this in part out of the recognition that humor is really hard to do well; being almost funny is not good enough, you have to be really funny," he explains. "But the White House was willing to accept some risk to get the payoff of doing something memorable and potentially viral that would reach its target audience – and they nailed it."

Signing up consumers – and especially young people – for private health plans is especially important for the White House at this point because open enrollment for 2014 through the Healthcare.gov website is scheduled to end on March 31. US citizens who do not have health insurance as of April 1 could be hit with tax penalties as much as 1% of their income.

The White House said this week that more than 4.2 million Americans have picked a health plan through the Healthcare.gov website since it launched on October 1 of last year, as well as state exchanges. Young adults, who are more likely to feel that health insurance is not worth the cost, are critical to the success of the insurance marketplaces.

Nick Ragone, director of Ketchum’s Washington, DC office, agrees that the effort to reach a young adult target audience in this way was a risky play. Because an audience for a Web series such as Between Two Ferns has come to expect no-holds-barred comedy, it would not have been forgiving if the installment was unfunny – or if Galifianakis had pandered to the president. Nor would it have been receptive to the Obama administration’s message about enrolling in the Affordable Care Act.

"The stakes were high because the show is so funny, and if they did something that came off as scripted, stilted, and a little lame, it would have frankly backfired on them," Ragone explains. "It is different than going on late-night TV because you can get away with a little bit of a stilted atmosphere; it is par for the course."

He adds that in a nutshell, "It was a huge gamble but with a big upside, and they captured the upside."

ABC News, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker were among the many media outlets that gave the Obama episode rave reviews. Soon, after the interview went live, FunnyOrDie.com became the top source of referrals to Healthcare.gov, according to a tweet from White House communications adviser Tara McGuinness.

Others, such as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and CNN analyst David Gergen voiced their disapproval of the interview, saying it was below the office of the president to appear on the program. 

Michael Gordon, principal of New York-based Group Gordon Strategic Communications, agrees that the video was a clever way to reach young people. But he says the risks of such a move were apparent in the execution of the video.

"The execution was good, not perfect. There were one or two jokes that lowered the president, even considering the context, and early on, it looked like the president was annoyed rather than looking like he was in on the joke," he says. "Had he kept a light-hearted demeanor the whole time, he would have come across better and the message would have come through without distraction."

Whether or not the video was beneficial for the Obama administration will depend on the numbers, he adds. 

"At the end of the day, if the video inspires more young people to get health insurance, it will be a win," he says.

Joseph Clayton, EVP and public affairs practice leader for the Washington, DC, office of GolinHarris, concurs that there is always risk to participating in any show that involves riffing and ad-libbing. 

"In-house communicators tend to hate going off script, especially when their employer is the president of the United States," he notes. But Clayton adds that the White House likely found ways to minimize the drawbacks.

"My assumption is that they had an approval loop, so I am not convinced this was a high-risk opportunity because of the conditions that they would have established," Clayton says. "I’m sure there was even some attention to pursuing a second or third take if something wasn’t consistent with what [the White House] wanted it to be."

Howard Opinsky, EVP at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and GM of the firm's Washington, DC, office, also believes there was relatively little risk for the Obama administration.

"It would have been risky if Obama had to stand up there and be funny on his own. We’ve seen presidents at the Alfalfa Club and even the White House Correspondents Dinner give tongue-in-cheek addresses that have fallen flat," says Opinsky. "But when you’re going to be the straight man to some well-known comedian, there is a pretty good chance you’ll get a laugh. Obama didn’t have to do much more than be himself – and be appalled at Zach Galifianakis."

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