Introduced as one of the most significant moments of SXSW’s 30 years, Barack Obama became the first POTUS still in office to take part in the coveted keynote conversation spot late last week.
The headlines (which you no doubt have read by now) all point to the same things as highlights: that he admitted ordering a pizza was easier than voting, he doesn’t have a big screen through which he can watch everyone like "something out of Homeland" – and that his real motivation for taking the spot was to "recruit" the audience.
A brief summary of that last point. Obama opened the session by saying that the vast pace and scale of innovation in technology right now bring huge opportunity, but also huge risk. It’s a double-edged sword, and he explained that his goal while in office has been to work out how government can be a positive part of this evolution.
There were three key areas he said this covers. First, how can we make government work better through technology? (Some headway has been made in this area already. U.S. seniors can now apply for Social Security online, for instance, and the government has cut the time it takes for students to apply for financial aid by two-thirds.)
Second, how can we use technology to tackle big problems in new ways? (Obama referenced a recent conference in Washington at which he discussed precision medicine practices by referencing the use of human genome mapping to cure diseases for the individual, based on DNA, rather than en masse.)
And last, how can government use big data and technology to make civic participation smarter or better? (By that, he means both increasing voter turnout and access to information.)
And then came the "call to arms." Obama’s message was simple: With these three things in mind, how can the people at the conference come up with new platforms, approaches, and ideas to solve some of the big problems we’re facing as a society today?
From a communications perspective, though, what was more interesting was Obama’s focus on the value of telling the right story.
We all know the importance of the message from a political perspective, and while there’s a long way to go in terms of digitizing government – there’s also a lot that’s been done so far. It’s just not a sexy story to admit that the government is doing something right.
"It’s not a story if government does something well. We just take for granted that there are roads, geo-satellite systems, special forces in place to stop people from blowing up our buildings. A significant part of the task at hand is telling a better story about what government does."
How familiar is that? How many times do we see the same situation with corporations and brands alike?
As with the reform action taken after financial crisis, the story told in the media and through to Hollywood was (and still is, if you’ve watched The Big Short) that nothing’s changed. And while that may or may not be true, in reality a lot has moved on – it’s just not in the headlines. We see this play out time and time again as PR professionals, since corporate crises sell papers and attract eyeballs.
From a governmental perspective, digital technologies present greater opportunities to create civic engagement than anything else. We cannot solve the problems of government and society unless we, the people, are paying attention.
And in an age in which people get their information from digital platforms, it’s our responsibility as communicators to not just think about building new things – but also think about what we say and where we say it in order to get people to care more. What this represents is a true combination of our heritage in PR, the very basics of our job function, with smarter use of new technology.
There’s a parallel to Obama’s point for most private sectors, since trying to get people to"care"doesn’t just benefit those who govern us. Cutting through the overwhelming noise of online content with a concise message is something we should all be reminding ourselves to focus on daily.