White House seeks to turn State of the Union into a trending topic


The White House has taken to social media platform Instagram, to promote President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address. Senior Presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett at her desk. (Courtesy of The White House/Courtesy of The White House)

Here’s a photo of senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett typing something at her desk. And here’s another of her sitting with President Obama and the first lady. The photos, posted on the White House’s Instagram account, are supposed to give people an inside look at the “exciting and hectic week” of preparations for the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, as Jarrett puts it on Instagram.

Now here’s White House chief speechwriter Cody Keenan, also on the White House’s Instagram account, offering a “day in the life of” account of writing the big speech. Keenan’s contributions: A blurry photo of a first draft of the speech and another of a folder marked “Presidential Statement.”

And here’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in a YouTube video earnestly explaining that the speech “is an important moment when the policy that influences the fabric of the American experiment is shaped.”

Presidential administrations have been promoting the State of the Union address long before Lyndon Johnson turned it into a prime-time TV event in 1965. The difference now is how the hype works. Instead of relying solely on the news media to gin up interest, the White House is doing the job. Taking its message directly to the public, it is selling the State of the Union speech with the same arsenal of social-media tools it deployed to sell candidate Obama during two national campaigns.

The White House has devoted a multimedia page of the official WhiteHouse.gov Web site to the address. Obama’s Twitter feed, which is followed by 41 million people, is studded with mentions of the speech. More promotional material about it appears on Obama and the White House’s Facebook pages and Tumblr blog.

The "designated survivor" is a Cabinet member specifically kept away from the president's State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol. We spoke to four past "survivors." (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

The buildup will continue during and after the address. As it has done for the past two years, Obama’s communications staff plans to “enhance” Obama’s remarks with play-along-at-home elements. As the president speaks, WhiteHouse.gov will post relevant charts, illustrations and data to support his points, all of it “shareable” on a viewer’s social networks. The idea is similar to the “second screen” programming that corporate marketers transmit to Web visitors during the Super Bowl and other live TV events. The White House is touting the idea with a semi-comic video showing what it might have looked like if other presidents had “enhanced” their addresses.

After the speech, “dozens” of administration officials will take questions about it in live chats on Twitter, Google + Hangouts and other social media, the White House says.

The goal, says Nathaniel Lubin, acting director of digital strategy for the White House, is “greater public engagement” and clarity about the ideas and policies Obama advances. “First and foremost,” Lubin says, “we’re trying to provide content that reflects the mission of the president’s speech.”

Not incidentally, the effort enables the White House to put its own frame around the State of the Union, free from the news media’s inevitable slicing and dicing.

“Technology has caught up with the ambition of this White House and every one before it to own their own story,” says Terence Smith, a journalist formerly with PBS, CBS and the New York Times. “It’s a frontal appeal to the audience. They’re not just going over the heads of the media. They’re going over the heads of Congress, too. They now have the [technological] means” to control the focus and the message.

Smith isn’t suggesting there’s something sinister in this, but others have. Dozens of media organizations, including The Washington Post, formally complained in November about the exclusion of news photographers from official events and the White House’s practice of using social media to distribute its own photos and videos to the public. The complaint said the policy was tantamount to censorship, like “placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens.”

But the White House draws a distinction in marketing the State of the Union. “The [social-media] tools we’re using go hand in hand with traditional media coverage” of the speech, says Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. “This is a supplement to the coverage,” he says, not a substitute for it.

President Obama has a lot of handshaking to do at the annual State of the Union address. If you plan to greet him there, leave those high fives and questions for him at home. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

In fact, that’s how some experienced White House reporters see it, too. “The rule is, you go where your audience is, and that’s what they’re doing,” says Olivier Knox, the White House correspondent for Yahoo News. “Using social media was something the Obama reelection campaign excelled at. All of these platforms came of age during this presidency. They’ve quite smartly taken a page from their campaign playbook” to market the State of the Union.

Knox points out that the Obama White House hasn’t abandoned its traditional media strategy for marketing the speech. Senior members of Obama’s staff, including senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and press secretary Jay Carney, previewed it on the morning talk shows on Sunday, for example. White House reporters, meanwhile, have been getting details in “dribs and drabs” during regular news briefings, he says. And Obama will meet on Tuesday with anchors from the broadcast and cable networks (plus NPR, Univision and Telemundo) to brief them on his speech, a tradition for the president.

While State of the Union speeches rarely change a president’s public approval ratings, they’re still important presidential moments, says Rick Shenkman, an historian at George Mason University.

“One speech can’t change the poll numbers, but it can start to change the national agenda,” he says. “He can use this to psychologically reset his presidency. If he shows the old Obama magic, he can reenergize his base. People may pay attention to him for a while, and a few things may start to go his way. Then everyone will look back and say the State of the Union was the moment when he started the ball rolling.”

And so it’s no surprise to Shenkman that the White House is beating the drum as loudly as it can for Tuesday’s speech. “If I were them, “ he says, “I’d be using every tool at my disposal, too.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.

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