Obama comms tactics signal new era

The nation recently witnessed the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama.

The nation recently witnessed the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama.

Obama wants to be the first president to govern with BlackBerry in hand; he will certainly be the first with a legion of 13 million advocates at his fingertips. Obama won the presidency in a landslide victory by leveraging social media to give ordinary Americans access to information and resources usually reserved for professional campaign operatives.

His campaign also struck the difficult balance between inspiring the kinetic energy of a movement and channeling the enthusiasm into the specific activities needed to win the election: donations, organization, and votes. Obama knew when to exert control – picking only 15 social networks to participate in and driving supporters back to My.BarackObama.com – and when to hand over the reins – posting raw video footage, photos, and how-to guides to help supporters create their own compelling content.

Obama has converted the president's traditional bully pulpit into a social pulpit, delivering a message designed to be taken and spread by others, with the tools and techniques honed during his campaign. Instead of relying on the traditional one-way, top-down approach to communications, the incoming administration is harnessing the power of public engagement to influence the conversation across various spheres of cross-influence.

For example, Obama's transition team posted his weekly “radio” addresses on YouTube, instead of just distributing it via FM radio, so that they could be more easily embedded and shared. It worked: While the number of radio listeners typically peaks in the thousands, more than a million people watched the first YouTube video.

Similarly, more than 5,000 people commented on a Change.gov video that asked visitors to submit their ideas about healthcare reform. While this and future videos serve the primary role of crowd-building supporters, they can also be used for crowd-sourcing ideas. Either way, such platforms will be used to demonstrate a social majority on each issue the administration faces by giving people the opportunity to enthusiastically and authentically demonstrate support for its policies.

Obama has succeeded in changing the way that strategists think about engineering an electoral victory. But, the lessons learned from his campaign won't just be applied to future elections, nor be limited to governing how the president relates to the American people. By combining social media and micro-targeting in the manner that it did, the campaign revealed force multipliers that are already being adopted by advocacy groups pushing their own issue agendas.

Smart businesses will embrace this public engagement model, as well, particularly in how they mobilize support among natural allies, such as customers, employees, retirees, and suppliers. Otherwise, they will be at a significant tactical and strategic disadvantage when their critics and competitors create a groundswell of their own.
Monte Lutz is SVP of digital public affairs at Edelman and a visiting faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at monte.lutz@edelman.com.

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