Technology

The White House, the Medium, and Your Message

By / Jan 27, 2015 (White House handout photo)

During last week’s State of the Union address, the Obama administration won a bit of a publicity coup by posting the text of the full speech onto the blogging platform Medium. Associations, which often have a tougher time getting a message out to the world than the president might, could learn some huge lessons on the advocacy front.

President Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t had an easy go of it over the years. Depending on your political persuasion, the White House has either been too timid or too aggressive in pursuing its policy goals—but one place the administration has traditionally won the day has been in its messaging.

Obviously, the key starting point is the White House’s website, which has matured significantly since the days of the Bush administration. And everyone knows the Obama administration is effective at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and everything in between.

But quite often, the things that set apart the administration’s public relations efforts are the subtle victories that ever so slightly expand the reach of the president’s message. Last week, the administration had one of those moments with the State of the Union address.

If you’ve been following the SOTU on social media in recent years, generally it works like this: People follow the speech, tweet or post about it, and at some point, the prepared speech hits the wire services or gets through a handful of select media outlets—with an embargo on it. Inevitably, some news organization breaks the embargo about 10 minutes after the address starts. That link gets heavily shared, and that post becomes a brief traffic victory for whomever breaks the embargo—usually a news source with plenty of insider ties, like PBS NewsHour or the National Journal.

The Obama administration flipped the script this year. Rather than letting someone else reap the SOTU traffic, the president’s team posted the speech themselves, but not on the White House website. Instead, the administration put it on Medium, a decentralized blog platform designed to push a message as far as possible.

“By making the text available to the public in advance, the White House is continuing efforts to reach a wide online audience and give people a range of ways to consume the speech,” the administration wrote.

The Medium post, and its implication of transparency, created a moment of media frenzy far bigger than the release of the speech got in the past. Dozens of media outlets talked about the precedent-setting moment, which Medium Senior Editor Kate Lee said simply makes sense—the site gets around the problem of silos that often defines many internet offerings.

“You’re publishing to a place that has millions of readers,” she told The Washington Post‘s media blogger, Erik Wemple. “People are already here, and they’re much more likely to discover your piece.”

But it also made the administration, which has been dogged at times for a lack of transparency, look smart. (Of course, the president disagrees with his critics on transparency.)

Considering the political reality Obama faces in 2015—starting the final stretch of his presidency with the opposition party in charge over at the Capitol—every little bit of positive messaging helps.

On the Other Hand …

Now, I’m not going to say that the administration has done everything right on the media relations front. Far from it, in fact.

The White House constantly faces criticism that it controls its own narrative too closely, prefers its own photographers over those supplied by media outlets, makes media access to federal agencies too difficult, tackles leaks too aggressively, and doesn’t do a great job of making the president available to the press. And media groups have always been quick to speak up on these issues and others. (Gotta protect that freedom of the press.)

The State of the Union itself inevitably got mixed reviews from the pundit class.

We’re trying to find audiences where they are. The burden is on us to do that.

Look Outward, Not Inward

Nonetheless, there’s something pretty impressive about the president’s foray into Medium.

When it comes to online advocacy, the approach many associations take is something along the lines of “if you post it, they will notice.” And sometimes, that’s right: If media outlets care enough about a given topic, they might notice the press release your media shop has put online.

It’s easy to act as if the job stops the moment that press release goes online. But that’s where the job begins. The message needs bandwidth to spread beyond its initial home. And, as much as you may like to believe that all the important people read your website, the truth is that even sites as important as whitehouse.gov don’t matter as much to the average internet citizen as Facebook or Medium.

The White House media relations team gets this.

“We’re trying to find audiences where they are,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Post‘s Wemple. “The burden is on us to do that.”

As important as it is to own your own printing press—say, if you’re talking specifically to your members rather than the outside world—sometimes it’s better to embrace that your printing press isn’t the most powerful one out there. Association communities need nourishment, but ultimately there are limits to their reach.

Lots of associations tend to think they’re the center of their own universe, but they’re not. Advertising and public relations are quickly becoming more important to associations than lobbying, and that means advocacy pros have to look beyond the communication platforms they own. (Clever approaches, like the one the National Retail Federation showed off during the State of the Union, are a great start.)

The sooner your association embraces that, the better.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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