Politico greeted night owls and early risers to a fantastic article about the White House press strategy. The tenets have been the same for every President, controlling the President’s public image through strategic use of information – but no President has had the options that Barack Obama has.
Since great minds steal, anyone seeking to copy the Obama team’s strategy should consider three major points:
1. News outlets are no longer the gatekeepers for mass media exposure.
White House photographers have been commonplace in the past few decades; Politico notes that the current White House has made those photographs ubiquitous on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. That these channels exist allow the President to go over the media’s head, but without mass media branding they wouldn’t work as well.
Ronald Reagan and his predecessors faced three networks and a handful of national newspapers. Bill Clinton presided over the rise of cable news networks, as MSNBC and Fox joined CNN to increase scrutiny on the sturm and drang of partisan politics; online media helped increase that during George W. Bush’s administration.
Big News is now the victim of its own success. There’s now a general awareness of political comings and goings, enough that political topics spill into entertainment shows. And think about all the channels on your TV dial today. Quasi-news shows – like The Daily Show, The View, and the Today Show – now allow politicians to maintain visibility without getting asked hard questions. President Obama will have plenty of eyeballs on him when he fills out his NCAA brackets this year, but ESPN’s Stuart Scott probably won’t ask him any pointed questions about Benghazi or gun control.
(Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Obama did run into a tough line of questioning on ESPN of all places? “So you like Duke to come out of the South Region. What did you think was going to come out of the south when you shipped those guns to Mexico?”)
2. Brand matters
This visibility serves to underscore a certain identity. Visibility in and of itself is one thing, but carefully selecting the outlet where you’re seen helps create a message.
Obama wants voter to identify with him personally, so sharing his love for sports on ESPN helps. Brief interviews to network anchors, fluff interviews on The View, and vague calls to action in the State of the Union all serve to underscore that he’s in control, but not so wonkish that he would be unapproachable.
Obama is able to pull this strategy off now because he is the President, has had two national campaigns, and is a known personality to most Americans. During his 2008 primary campaign, he had to create that interest by launching a campaign that looked and felt different from traditional campaigns – from the Pepsi-ish logo to the embracing of supporter-created materials. Sarah Palin tried to eschew the “lamestream media” in favor of communication via Facebook post – but her story was already written for her when she abruptly resigned as governor. Her branding efforts were far more traditionally political, so they predictably flopped when she tried to use non-traditional outlets to reinforce them.
Palin’s attempt to bypass the media is a good example of how a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to mimic Obama’s White House is doing can backfire. If you’re running for dog catcher and there’s no demand for media accessibility, some of these won’t work; however if you’re the person everyone wants to interview, you can call some of the shots.
3. Working harder and smarter trumps media bias.
For decades – decades! – Republicans have groused about media bias. They’ll point to surveys that show reporters tend to vote Democrat, and they’ll moan that no Republican will get the same treatment as Obama.
There will always be folks like Chris Matthews who fall in love with candidates like Obama and worship them with an illogical fervor that gives cult followers a run for their money. But the creation of good coverage by the Obama Administration is more the result of meticulous work than a happy accident of reporter preference. The communications team knows where the President needs to be seen and how to make the most out of each channel they use. Backed with the currency of access to the White House, they put themselves in a position to write the rules of engagement – and aren’t shy about doing so.
Will [INSERT GOP CANDIDATE HERE] be able to create a carbon copy in 2016? Probably not in terms of outcome. But in terms of overall attitude, strategies, and tactics, a lot of what the Obama Team does is worth swiping.