Obama and the presidency online

I received another e-mail from Barack yesterday. Things appear to be going well from his end during the early stages of the transition. And he said if I would donate another $30 or more he would send me a T-shirt proudly proclaiming “change.” I’ll pass on that. But it struck me that we are about to see a big change in how the president and the Obama administration communicates with the nation and world: online, direct, informal and with a complete understanding of social media, networking and the decline of traditional news media.

Wow. This should be exciting. The incoming Obama administration is already open for business on the web, posting information, stories and guidelines for the transition. And if you are looking for a job with the new administration, it’s the place to go.

I’m sure by now there are plenty of case studies and examples of how organizations are effectively using similar online and social media communication strategies. But I believe that the Obama administration — and how it approaches communication — will provide the tipping point for all organizations to get onboard the new media express.

I do a lot of work these days with small nonprofit organizations in Washington and elsewhere. Most are wrestling with how to communicate effectively these days with a host of key audiences. And that includes my organization, Corporate Voices for Working Families. It’s one thing to talk about the importance of new media — and of social networks — but it’s another to get organizations to take the leap of faith and abandon communication strategies that still rely heavily on traditional media, primarily the dead-tree editions of newspapers.

Obama is about to change that — just like he changed forever how candidates communicate, raise money and gain support during the campaign.

David Carr wrote an informative article in The New York Times yesterday, “How Obama Tapped Into Social Networks’ Power.”

It seems that Obama in 2007 approached Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape and a Facebook board member, with what Carr describes as a preposterous idea. Could social networking, Obama asked, help him “beat the overwhelming odds facing him.”

“It was like a guy in a garage who was thinking of taking on the biggest names in the business,” Mr. Andreessen recalled. “What he was doing shouldn’t have been possible, but we see a lot of that out here and then something clicks. He was clearly supersmart and very entrepreneurial, a person who saw the world and the status quo as malleable.”

And as it turned out, President-elect Barack Obama was right.

Like a lot of Web innovators, the Obama campaign did not invent anything completely new. Instead, by bolting together social networking applications under the banner of a movement, they created an unforeseen force to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns and get out the vote that helped them topple the Clinton machine and then John McCain and the Republicans.

And the implications for communications — and governing the nation — in the coming weeks and months?

“Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and money manager who blogs at Mathoda.com. “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”

All of the Obama supporters who traded their personal information for a ticket to a rally or an e-mail alert about the vice presidential choice, or opted in on Facebook or MyBarackObama can now be mass e-mailed at a cost of close to zero. And instead of the constant polling that has been a motor of presidential governance, an Obama White House can use the Web to measure voter attitudes.

And some additional perspective on this from Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk, writing in The Washington Post, “Under Obama, Web Would Be the Way.” Here’s the lead of the story:

CHICAGO — Armed with millions of e-mail addresses and a political operation that harnessed the Internet like no campaign before it, Barack Obama will enter the White House with the opportunity to create the first truly “wired” presidency.

Obama aides and allies are preparing a major expansion of the White House communications operation, enabling them to reach out directly to the supporters they have collected over 21 months without having to go through the mainstream media.

Just as John F. Kennedy mastered television as a medium for taking his message to the public, Obama is poised to transform the art of political communication once again, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who first helped integrate the Internet into campaigning four years ago.

“He’s going to be the first president to be connected in this way, directly, with millions of Americans,” Trippi said.

Gee, the potential to bypass traditional news media, talk to people throughout the country, encourage involvement and word-of-mouth conversations online and elsewhere, and mobilize a nation at the grassroots to lobby as citizens on important issues. Looks like a new ballgame — and there are going to be plenty of decision-makers in corporations, nonprofits, education and elsewhere throughout government looking on to see the results.

Big opportunity for PR people. Big opportunity for the nation — especially if the Obama team continues to do it right:

  • Keep us informed regularly — and quickly.
  • Keep the communications as personal, informal, concise and readable as possible.
  • Keep in mind that it should be a conversation. Wouldn’t that be something.
  • Keep the information and conversation alive during bad times as well as good.
  • And keep it honest, truthful and civil.

And if the president can follow those five points, maybe other organizations — big and small, public and private — will take a shot at it as well. This just might be a defining moment for communications professionals — as well as for the nation.

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One response to “Obama and the presidency online

  1. Hi Rob,

    Nice entry. I put Obama’s (rather his political team’s) ‘social media’ skills to the test. I posted ‘My Story’ of how the Obama campaign affected me at http://www.change.gov. Let’s see if he responds–or if it even gets posted. Cross your fingers!!

    Take care, Rob.

    Holly

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