Blog Post

Obama’s Video Strategy: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Obama on YouTubeDuring the 2008 presidential election, the Barack Obama campaign set up dedicated new media teams in many states, but there were only eight with dedicated videographers: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. What do those states have in common? They were key swing states — and on Nov. 4th, Barack Obama won every single one.

I recently spoke with with Kevin Hartnett, director of new media for the Pennsylvania campaign, and Brett Brownell, deputy new media director and PA campaign videographer, about what it was like to work on the campaign — and help change politics forever.

Hartnett started out with the campaign as a volunteer with a minimum of new media experience — “I’d done some blogging” — but was soon an organizer in a succession of primary states. And once Obama clinched the nomination in June, he was hired as the new media director for the Pennsylvania team, managing the front and back end of “For everything that was happening in the campaign we looked for a new media angle or a content angle that we could put together,” he said. When it came to video, “We did everything from creating videos explaining how to vote in Philadelphia, to inspirational videos capturing the spirit of the grassroots movement and the importance of [voters] taking ownership of their communities.”

As deputy director and videographer, Brownell was the one putting these videos together, at a rate of roughly one a week. A USC Cinema graduate who was working in music videos when a friend told him about openings on the campaign, his first days were spent strategizing with Hartnett. “He said to expect things to gear up very quickly once people realize that they had us at their disposal.” Indeed, once it became clear the speed at which Brownell and Hartnett were able to not only produce videos but create flyers, build web sites and more, “[W]e became some of the most popular people in the office.”

The PA new media team worked closely with the campaign headquarters. While Hartnett and Brownell were encouraged to come up with “out of the box” ideas on their own, they’d also get requests to assemble “how to vote” videos or collect footage for a national project. Before being added to the Obama YouTube account, each video had to conform with the Obama campaign style guide. Completed videos would had to be submitted to the Obama new media team in Chicago for notes, “much more for style than for message or talking points,” Hartnett said. After going back and forth on edits, the videos would then be posted to YouTube.

The content of the videos varied based on the groups being targeted, which changed from week to week. For example, when the team chose to target veterans, Brownell went to D.C. to interview Patrick Murphy (D-PA) — the only serving member of Congress who is a veteran of the current war in Iraq — about both the war specifically and foreign policy in general.

As a high-target swing state, the Pennsylvania campaign had more access than others to Obama and what Hartnett and Brownell referred to as “surrogates” — people pushing the campaign message, which included anyone from running mate Joe Biden to Private Practice star Kate Walsh. And that made for great video. A favorite of the Chicago office was a clip featuring singer Carole King stumping for Obama on a campaign stop; it took in some 13,000 views. And while no press was present when Philadelphia mayor Mike Nutter spoke to an official get-out-the-vote meeting at volunteer headquarters, Brownell was able to capture the speech, which he described as being one of the most effective he documented while with the campaign. “It had passion and a message of urgency to viewers and voters…I saw a lot of speeches and a lot of rallies, but he was really speaking from his heart.” The speech reached nearly 88,000 views on YouTube.

As we previously reported, Obama triumphed not just in the electoral college, but on the YouTube charts. He currently has 20 million channel views to McCain’s 2.2 million — thanks to teams like the Pennsylvania team working to spread the campaign’s message.

In this election cycle, the incorporation of online video as part of a wider new media strategy was clearly revolutionary — even to those involved. “This was not something the political professionals on the campaign had had before,” Hartnett said. “It’s the frontier of how new media can work in politics, and it’s exciting to think of where we’re going to be even four years from now, and how all the campaigns that come after this are going to be looking at what Barack did and trying to emulate it.”