The State of the Union used to be a one-night event, where Americans gathered around their TV sets at home and watched a bunch of politicians sit and watch the president give a speech. This year it's an extended, multimedia extravaganza that underscores the dramatic evolution in political communication.
After consulting with experts in Silicon Valley and deliberating internally, the White House launched a new strategy this year that includes both engaging the public through social media and highlighting several of the administration's initiatives in advance of the speech.
"As people have transitioned into alternative forms of information, the State of the Union experience has changed," said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer in an interview. "It's no longer you sit in front of the TV at a 9 o'clock on a Tuesday and talk about it at the water cooler on Wednesday. So we think about this not as one night, but as a multimedia experience, and we target four types of viewers."
Who are those four types? Those who still watch it at home in front of their sets; those who are watching it on TV but also active on another screen, be it their laptop, tablet or smartphone; those watching it online; and those who will never watch the speech in its entirety but will see segments of it and discuss it via social media sites.
Both the administration's methods of communication, and its timeline, have changed. It started rolling out major new policy proposals as soon as Obama returned from his vacation in Hawaii, on subjects ranging from college education to housing, broadband access and paid leave.
While the White House has used social media in the past to promote the State of the Union, this time it leveraged it even more. The White House's community college announcement video was its most successful Facebook post ever, with more than 8 million views. Pfeiffer outlined the administration's pre-speech strategy and delivered its policy rationale with a posting on Medium, while White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett unveiled the president's new paid leave initiative in an article on the LinkedIn network that has been accessed nearly 350,000 times.
The administration announced its broadband plan through a video of the president that was distributed in partnership with Upworthy. That video has garnered more than 155,000 views so far, while the post on Upworthy has attracted nearly 240,000 page views.
And then there's the three YouTube stars who will be interviewing the president on Jan. 22: GloZell Green, Bethany Mota and Hank Green. GloZell Green may be better known for her fashion choices and ability to play (or attempt to play) music on a green cup than her policy expertise, but she and the other YouTube stars have a huge fan base. (Mota has more than 2.3 million Twitter followers, for example.) The White House enlisted the aid of YouTube stars on issues including health care and domestic violence, and has found them to be one of the most effective ways to reach young people on policy issues.
So maybe it doesn't matter that GloZell Green's followers have suggested she ask Obama "what would you do if you became Gandalf?" and "Who is the bae?" At least one of them inquired about his new Cuba policy. (If you're wondering, Google -- not the White House -- picked the three video celebrities, according to administration officials).
On Thursday White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Obama's interview with YouTube stars "is a way for the president to spend a little time talking about some of these issues that he’ll discuss in the State of the Union with individuals that have a large presence on YouTube."
"It doesn’t take the place of the public events the President will do after the State of the Union when he travels across the country to talk about some of the things that he'll discuss in the State of the Union address," Earnest added. "So this is part of an integrated communication strategy to make sure that the American people understand exactly what the president is fighting for in Washington, D.C."