10 questions for former White House digital guru Dan Pfeiffer

Former White House senior adviser and digital guru Dan Pfeiffer, who stepped down in February, chatted with PRWeek about his future, what digital trends to look for in the 2016 election, and why Silicon Valley is becoming a regular home for former politicos.

PRWeek: What was the biggest surprise about communicating from the White House?
Dan Pfeiffer: The dramatic change that we saw over the eight years I worked for Barack Obama was probably the period of greatest change in the distribution and consumption of information since the invention of the printing press or even the invention of the telegraph. If you think about what life was like in 2007 when I started, Facebook was something being used primarily on college campuses. Twitter had just been created, but it was not well known.

What’s probably most surprising is as soon as you get on top of one technology, another one sprouts up that you have to get on right away. First we were on Facebook, and then we had to be on Twitter, now it’s Snapchat, and then Meerkat and Medium. The pace of change is speeding up, not slowing down.

PRWeek: What’s next for you? The agency, corporate, or campaign worlds?
Pfeiffer:
I am probably retired from politics as a profession, but I’d like to take the lessons learned from eight years with President Obama and find a couple of projects to help either organizations, companies, or others figure out how to navigate the changing media environment. Or to help organizations figure out how to transition from a legacy organization to a digital organization.

When we first got to the White House, everything was set up around traditional legacy media. Over the course of a lot of hard work and with the help of a lot of smart people, we were able to become – at least for government and politics – the closest you can get to cutting edge in terms of using social media, new platforms, and digital strategies to get our message out.

PRWeek: Why?
Pfeiffer: The changing media environment is a fascination of mine and is really what I’ve been wrestling with my whole career, and I feel that for all the changes to date, we’ve seen nothing yet. We are on the cusp of a dramatic revolution in the media environment, as people move away from broadcast TV, as news companies unbundle from cable, and as traditional news organizations such as The New York Times and others transition into digital media companies. It’s an incredibly exciting time to work in this space.

PRWeek: What do you think will be the most-buzzed-about technology of the 2016 campaign?
Pfeiffer: I wrote a piece on Medium about this – I think that livestreaming video from mobile phones with new apps such as Meerkat has the potential to be the revolutionary technology of that election cycle.

Every election cycle in the age of the Internet has had more technology that drove change and participation. In 2004, it was Meetup; in 2008, it was Facebook; and in 2012, it was Twitter. Meerkat, or something like it, has the potential to be that for 2016.

PRWeek: Which presumed 2016 candidates or politicians are using digital well?
Pfeiffer: It’s a little too early to say because they’re not really up and running. The folks doing the work for Secretary [Hillary] Clinton are folks I know really well [and] are some of the smartest people in this field, so I fully expect that she will be on the cutting edge of employing digital strategies to engage and communicate with the electorate.

PRWeek: Speaking of Hillary Clinton, do you think she can restart her relationship with the press?
Pfeiffer: In my experience, relationships with the press are cyclical. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re bad – then they’ll turn great again. I think she will have a good relationship with the press corps covering her. Jen Palmieri, who used to be the White House communications director and someone I worked with very closely, is one of the savviest and most-press-friendly communicators I know, so she’ll be well-positioned to do this.

It’s important to understand that it is the campaign’s job to help the press do its job, but it’s also the campaign’s job to win the election. Sometimes those interests are going to align and sometimes they won’t, and there will inevitably be moments of tension in any campaign; we had them in both Obama campaigns.

There will be times when the press feels great, and there will be times when you can do everything right and the press will still beat you up. There will also be times when you do everything wrong and they’ll give you a pass, and you can’t get too caught up in the moment. Just stay focused on your long-term goal. You’re going to have the most success if you’re looking for ways to help reporters do their job consistent with your own strategic interest. 

Palmieri taught me a ton about how to go about doing that when we were working at the White House, and so I think she’ll do great.

PRWeek: Is it possible for another candidate to capture the Obama campaign’s technological magic from 2008 or 2012?
Pfeiffer: The key to this isn’t to try to do what we did in 2012 and try to have someone else do it. It is to look at your lessons learned and then innovate on top of that, because the strategies of 2008 were pretty stale by 2012, and the strategies of 2012 will be pretty stale by 2016. Democrats have a real advantage because they have been much better at outreach to Silicon Valley, recruiting innovators in the field to come work for them, and part of that is because Republican policies have not been particularly friendly to the tech community. The candidate with the best chance of doing that is going to be Clinton, but I’m sure everyone’s going to try.

The Republicans in 2012 sort of sat on their hands when it came to tech, and Democrats should assume Republicans are going to do everything they possibly can to make up the gap this time. We’ll have to work even harder to maintain our advantage.

PRWeek: Why do you think so many former politicos are going to Silicon Valley?
Pfeiffer: The culture of campaigns and startups are very similar. A small number of people begin with a grand vision and they live on the precipice of success or failure every day, and I think it attracts similar core people. People enter politics because they want to change the world, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, and a lot of people in Silicon Valley see the potential of technology to change the world. So I think that’s a very attractive thing for folks who are retired from politics.

PRWeek: What trends should we look for as the campaigns take off?
Pfeiffer: One is the campaigns will go to a bunch of different platforms. So the campaigns are going to have Instagram content, Facebook content, Twitter content, Medium content, and Snapchat content. Each of those platforms has its own culture and campaigns are going to have to design content that speaks specifically to that audience.

The second is going to be the rise of the digital influencer, so a smart candidate will spend a lot of time courting people with large Twitter, Facebook, and social media followings and who is a credible conduit for their message. A good example of that are YouTube content creators, and campaigns will work with them and reach out like they would reach out to columnists, editorial board writers, and reporters.

PRWeek: In terms of traditional media, what messages and platforms will resonate in 2016?
Pfeiffer: One thing that is true no matter how much everything changes is that local TV remains, in a presidential election, the most important medium to get your message out, and I think you will continue to see that. Candidates and campaigns spend a lot of time doing satellite tours, local interviews, and the like to get their message out. At the end of the day, a presidential campaign is about getting X number of voters in Y number of states to vote for you to get to 270 electoral votes and the best way to reach those voters is local TV.

The economy is what people are most focused on at home and will remain the main topic of conversation on the campaign. If a campaign strays too far from that, they’re not going to be talking to voters where they are.

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