Steve and Cokie Roberts: Obama adept with new media code
That’s slang for “You only live once,” and the phrase was popularized by the rapper Drake in his 2011 hit song “The Motto.” (We had to look that one up.)
It was also used by the president of the United States to end a recent video produced by the website BuzzFeed. His main purpose was to get young people to sign up for Obamacare, but the style of his presentation was instructive.
It contained several pop culture references, including the president using a “selfie stick” to take his own photo. And Obama willingly poked fun at himself — mispronouncing the word “February” while practicing in front of a mirror and pretending to sink a phantom jump shot.
Steve showed this video to a class he teaches on media and politics at George Washington University only hours after it came out, but most of his students had already seen it. They’d received it directly from friends who had posted it on Facebook, linked to it on Twitter or texted it to their contacts.
This is the new media universe at work. And any candidate for president in 2016 who doesn’t understand and utilize this universe will be at a huge disadvantage.
Team Obama grasped the potential of the emerging digital space right from the beginning, but has used it even more aggressively in his second term. After his State of the Union address last month, the president granted interviews to three YouTube stars, including a woman named GloZell Green, who wears green lipstick and bathes in a tub full of cereal.
Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters she’s not. But according to Green’s website, she has over 3 million subscribers, and her 2,000 videos have drawn over 529 million views.
“Our job is to reach audiences where they are,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in Politico. “Given the rapidly changing media environment, we are constantly working to identify new outlets to reach new audiences and determine the best way to communicate with news consumers in this digital age.”
That statement might serve as “the motto” for Team Obama’s media strategy: “Reach audiences where they are.” Not where you hope they’ll be. Or think they should be.
That’s why Obama appeared last year on a web-based program called “Between Two Ferns” hosted by comedian Zach Galifianakis. His stock strategy is to ask weird questions that disconcert his guests, but the president took the chance because he wanted to spread the Obamacare gospel.
“We have to find ways to break through,” White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer told The New York Times. “This is essentially an extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now.”
There’s a downside here. The White House has, in effect, created the OBN — the Obama Broadcasting Network. And it uses all these new media platforms — texts and tweets, YouTube and Facebook, Vine and Vimeo — to directly control the images and messages voters receive.
Obama might chat with GloZell and Galifianakis, but he’s held fewer news conferences with seasoned White House questioners than any president since Ronald Reagan. Last year, photographers who cover the president complained that they are regularly excluded from many events, so the only images the public sees are taken and selected by White House media managers.
The photographers allege that the administration is “placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens (and) blocking the public from having an independent view” of their government.
There’s also a risk that the president can get too folksy, too informal. We’ve always believed that Americans want presidents who understand average people, but who are not average themselves. As former White House press secretary Mike McCurry told the Times, “We have to worry about the dignity of the presidency.”
That’s true. But any public figure these days runs a greater risk of falling behind the rapidly bending media curve, and all the candidates who want to succeed Obama have to learn two lessons from him.
The first is to be personable and authentic. When the president answered questions via a feature called “AMA” (“Ask Me Anything”) on the social media site Reddit, he opened by saying, “Hey everybody, this is Barack.” Not exactly “Four score and seven years ago,” but better suited to the intimacy of the digital space.
The second is to understand how your message is delivered — horizontally, not vertically, from cellphone to cellphone, from one friend to another.
Crack the code or go home.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.