Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told the Council of PR Firms' Critical Issues Forum yesterday that the Washington scene was as dreary as the gray and rainy weather in New York City where he was speaking.
He added that he has spent the months since he left office earlier this year making sure his eight-year-old son gets to school on time. But he still trades regular emails with President Barack Obama, even if most of them are about college football these days, and it is clear he will play a significant role in the communications around next year's attempt to extend Obama's premiership into a second term.
In his speech and in an exclusive video interview with PRWeek, Gibbs gave a fascinating insight into the Washington presidential bubble, and amusingly described how there were never “policy problems” when the policy wonks got together, only “communications problems” about how the policies were being presented, especially when the President joined the conversation.
He focused on the vital importance of social media, and asked whether we are spending enough time considering what social media means for us. His last two weeks at the White House coincided with the last two weeks of the Mubarek administration in Egypt and Gibbs suggested we are now seeing the same sort of change and social unrest in the US, in the form of Occupy Wall Street.
He said the demonstrations, which originated in New York City and spread across the US and the rest of the world, speak to a tremendous amount of frustration and anxiety with the world we live in. He highlighted the fact that social media is the connective tissue that has helped organize collective and disparate voices into a force for change.
Gibbs recalled that, in 2007-08, social media prompted a massive social change that culminated in a senator from Illinois called Barack Obama becoming the first African-American to reach the top position at the White House. He said the foundation of the 2011-12 campaign will be similar and that the Democrats hope to communicate with and engage the same group of people.
But he pointed out the environment has changed significantly, even in such a short time, and characterized next year as the “Twitter election”. He said political campaigns, governments, and businesses face a “unique” environment with a completely new set of rules: no-one is immune to society's doubts and everyone has to be accountable to their users, who are now the ones in control.
As you would expect of such a seasoned and battle-hardened PR pro, it was an impressive performance, and it was difficult to disagree with Gibbs' pithy and informative summary of the state of play in modern communications, both for politicians and businesspeople.
Gibbs sound bites…
- Social media – it allows you to be exactly where your audience is, where they find it most convenient, not you. If you're not where they are they'll go somewhere else.
- Twitter – during White House press conferences it enabled him to watch what reporters were thinking when they were thinking it. A political "event" can now be as little as two tweets.
- Occupy Wall Street – it's not just a manifestation of people who are not busy; it's a sign of frustration with what's happened over the course of 20-30 years.
- Evening TV news bulletins – in 1980, 50 million people tuned in from a population of 227 million. Now it is 21 million from 309 million.
- Obama doing the Jay Leno show – we have to go where our customers are.
- Rules of engagement – be transparent, go beyond the press release, listen, and respond.
- Threat – institutions that fail to react and listen will not survive. If you are not using social media as a central part of your brand, your brand isn't going to be around for long.
- Congress' approval rating – if you go below the national drinking age you have a problem (it is currently 9% according to The New York Times).
- PR pros – being a communications professional is shorthand for being a control freak.
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