In a world where armies have become media entities, and a major terrorist group from the Middle East is known in part for its savvy use of social-media channels, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a government would act like a media entity — and the recent State of the Union event was great example of that in action. But surprising or not, I think there are a number of things that existing media companies, both digital and traditional, could learn from how the White House handled the speech.
#1: If you can, be first: The single most surprising aspect of the State of the Union, from a media point of view, was that the text of the speech was released before the event — and not because of a leak, as has happened in the past, but because the White House published it on Medium. This was a clear break with the tradition of only releasing it to a select few media outlets just before the speech, with an embargo on the details.
This approach effectively accomplished two things: it made the Obama government look more open and transparent, and it helped generate even more coverage because other media were able to write stories while it was happening, which in turn led to more coverage. In effect, the White House controlled the narrative because it was early with the news.
#2: Be everywhere: Another interesting element of the White House’s approach is that the State of the Union speech wasn’t posted on the official blog, or any of the government’s other websites, but on a third-party site. Why? Because — as a White House spokesman explained to the Washington Post in a piece about the media strategy — “we’re trying to find audiences where they are.” The official White House sites, he said “exist in their own silos, and it can be hard to get people to come to you.”
Replace the term “White House” with “New York Times” and this statement is just as true. And that’s why outlets like BuzzFeed are experimenting with projects like BuzzFeed Distributed: a team that creates content that lives on the platform it is designed for, whether that’s Instagram or Snapchat or Tumblr. Fusion writer Felix Salmon calls this approach to content “promiscuous media.”
#3: Fan the flames: It’s not enough to just post your great speech or news story on a single platform like Medium, or on your official blog — as the media team at the White House knows, you have to promote that story in as many places as possible, because you don’t know when or where you might reach someone who can help re-distribute it for you, thanks to what Om has called the “democratization of distribution.” The President’s chat with YouTube stars, which happens Thursday, is another part of that.
This is fundamentally the same challenge that media entities like the New York Times face, and why being social is so important (although obviously having great content to promote is just as important). As Jay Lauf of Quartz has put it, every story starts out with an audience of zero, and you have to go out and win an audience. Of course, this is made somewhat easier if you happen to be the president of the United States.
It should be fairly obvious by now, but each of these principles — and in fact, the entire strategy the White House employed around the State of the Union speech — applies just as well to brands and other sources of news as it does to traditional media entities. In that sense, the Obama administration isn’t really that different from Procter & Gamble or Red Bull: it has a message or an event it wants people to know about, and it has the tools to publish print, photos, video and social media in order to accomplish that.
Whether the State of the Union was actually a good speech or not — and whether it will actually have any impact on national affairs, or was just a sideshow for political effect — is open to debate. It’s also an open question whether an environment in which the White House controls so much of the media process is ultimately a good thing for democracy or not. But the bottom line is that in this, as in so many other things, the White House acted more like a media outlet than a traditional political entity.