Blog Post

A Guide to World Public Figures in Online Video, From Pontiffs to Palaces

With everyone from the Pope to the Queen of England hanging up a shingle at YouTube, it’s safe to say that prominent world figures have realized that having a presence on the web is a good thing.  But who is blazing an online video trail, and who is merely putting in an appearance?   We took a world tour to visit leaders of various stripes — some high profile, some less so — to see how they tackle making newteevee.

The Traditionalists

The Queen of England and the Pope both tend to favor repackaged existing footage over original video. From Queen Elizabeth, there are speeches, public interest tidbits, and of course, the Changing of the Guard. Rounding out the content is an impressive amount of older footage, for those of us not old enough to have caught Her Majesty’s first televised broadcast back in 1957.

The Pope’s channel is dominated by edited snippets of papal speeches or visits accompanied by summarizing voiceover.  The standout here, however, is not the content but the amount and immediacy of content.  The channel is updated every day, often with footage from appearances made only the day before. The cropped length of the videos also displays a fairly savvy knowledge of online attention spans.

The Web Superstars

With a streamed inauguration, weekly video addresses that launched while he was still a mere President-elect, and at least three YouTube channels (the still-updating campaign channel BarackObamadotcom, transition news channel ChangeDotGov, and the official White House channel), President Barack Obama has used online video as a way to underscore his stated commitment to greater transparency in the U.S. government.  And in doing so, he’s also taken US presidential accessiblity in its greatest leap forward since FDR debuted the Fireside Chat.

Taking accessibility even further is Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, who — in stark contrast to his less-interactive monarch — has a new feature on his YouTube channel called Ask the PM, in which he responds to questions from YouTube users. Via some slick widgetry, Brown’s response actually launches as soon as the question video ends, adding to the feel of a real conversation between politico and voters.  In an era when most candidates are still adjusting to debates with YouTube-contributed questions, Ask the PM is especially notable for being so very casual about being so high-tech.

Queen Rania of Jordan‘s “Send Me Your Stereotypes” campaign (see our NTVS review here) attempted to cross cultural boundaries while offering more interaction with a royal than any previous generation has seen. The result won her YouTube’s first ever Visionary Award.  Queen Rania no longer updates her channel as regularly as she did during the initial campaign, but she does post videos when she wishes to raise awareness for an issue, such as aid to war-torn Gaza.

Speaking of Gaza, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign affairs created a YouTube channel to address backlash against Israel’s actions there.  Launched just two days after the Israel Defense Forces’ more combat-heavy channel, the Minstry’s offering divides its focus between videos of ordinary Israeli citizens offering aid, medical care and friendship to the citizens of Gaza, and messages from spokespeople explaining Israel’s Gaza actions and policies (in multiple languages, including Arabic).

In very different ways, all have managed to tap into the intimacy of online video.   None of them shy away from a political stance; they are not merely affirming a presence or touching base with “fans,” but trying to establish a voice online as strong as those of their detractors.  Their confident and aggressive forays into the medium set the bar for future leaders to define their own online presence, on their own terms.

The Surprises

Strangely enough, the royal family with one of the strongest online presences, The Royal Family of Serbia, is not, in fact, currently in ruling power.  (And they haven’t been since Communists took over Yugoslavia in 1945.)   Nonetheless, in addition to regular updates for their countrymen, their YouTube channel has yearly English-language videos from both the Crown Prince and the Crown Princess, each filled with informative narrative about the country, their humanitarian efforts, and their year in general.  Which is quite a bit more than a lot of “official” royal families contribute.

Like the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, has some videos that are simply short packages of existing speeches.  However, he also posts regular “reflections” on religious, historical, and current matters, in which he speaks directly and casually to the camera.  Unlike the easily digestible videos on the Pope’s channel, these pieces can run 7-10 minutes, but the effect is that of having a sitdown with your own personal clergyman, a one-on-one sermon. The Holocaust Memorial Day message takes the concept even further, with the Archbishop having a quiet chat with two rabbis, giving the impression that we’re merely eavesdropping on a few men of faith having a private conversation.

The Rest

Many other royal families do have web sites, but their video content tends to be limited.  (The Royal Family of the Netherlands‘s site, for instance, has more to offer in the way of palace virtual tours than it does actual royal video.)  Japan’s previous Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukada, used the Liberal Democratic Party‘s channel to broadcast in English, while his successor, Taro Aso, delivered his New Year’s address only in (subtitled) Japanese, but both have limited themselves to the basic annual-speech-from-behind-a-desk format.  And while both branches of Congress now have YouTube channels, they have only a handful of videos between them.  (Though Nancy Pelosi does indulge in the occasional bit of online whimsy.)

Other channels making serviceable use of the YouTube stage are those of Canadian PM Stephen Harper and the United Nations.  Harper posts regular addresses and press conferences, along with holiday greetings celebrating various cultures.  The UN site has, among other features, a daily update shedding light on a particular crisis somewhere in the world.  And still more world leaders are dipping a toe in the waters, contributing videos to the Davos Debates or the In My Name campaign, or participating in one-offs like Ugandan Vice President Dr. Gilbert Bukenya’s visit to YouTube headquarters last May.

As the world gets ever bigger, leaders of all sorts are realizing they must embrace new media to stay connected to the people they want to reach.   Of course, crafting a message for the world online is as much about spin as it is anywhere else.  For some leaders, online video will truly be a way to be more accessible to their people; for others, it may ultimately be just a high-tech vehicle for propaganda.  And for most, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle.  But 24-hour news cycles and leaders’ most vocal critics have been online for years, and public figures know that for better or worse, it’s time to get their voices and faces out there.

The world will be watching.

3 Responses to “A Guide to World Public Figures in Online Video, From Pontiffs to Palaces”