How Obama Became a YouTube (and Buzzfeed, and Funny or Die…) Star
White House Communications Czar Dan Pfeiffer reveals the strategy—and looks to the future of POTUS PR in the social media era
The vast majority of working journalists, even those covering politics, have not sat down with a president of the United States for an interview. But in January 2015, three YouTube stars got that opportunity. They asked about drones, net neutrality and what super power the president would like to have. And then there was the moment when GloZell Green (3 million followers) handed a tube of her signature green lipstick to the leader of the free world. “For your first wife,” she said. Barack Obama was nonplussed. “You know something I don’t?” he asked.
To Dan Pfeiffer, the outgoing Senior Advisor to the President in charge of White House communications, the awkwardness was part of the lure: a moment of authenticity that helps a sometimes distant chief executive connect with his huge base of supporters. Pfeiffer, who has been with Obama since his first run for the White House, has been a key force in expanding the range of venues in which his boss can communicate with the American people. To the chagrin of a White House press corps accustomed to special access, the president has traded jibes and plugged Obamacare with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die, chatted about the climate with local weather anchors, and made faces in the mirror on a Buzzfeed video. The White House has also established a huge presence on Facebook, Twitter and Medium (yes, us), using the latter to break precedent and publish the State of the Union speech before the president delivered it.
Pfeiffer, on the eve of his departure from the White House last week, agreed to discuss with Backchannel the strategy, and to share his views on the current and future political media landscape. The most startling prediction: a future White House that produces its own content, undoubtedly causing more howls from the already diminished Brahmins of traditional media.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
[Steven Levy] One of the hallmarks of your time running White House communications has been Presidential appearances on “non-traditional” outlets. Where did the idea come from and how did you implement that plan?
[Dan Pfeiffer] I worked the campaign in 2008 and we prided ourselves on coming up with innovative ways to use the Internet and social media. Then we got to the White House and found an ancient infrastructure here. We were all banned from having access to social media for information security reasons. So we had to re-conceive ourselves to integrate digital strategy into the White House. We recognized, as we learned during the campaign, that you simply couldn’t rely on the same old mainstream communication tools to reach the public in the age of the atomized media where people have a lot of choices. So for the first couple years we would be doing the traditional things but also we’d do a Facebook chat, and we tried to have a lot of web content.
After the 2012 election, the pace of change increased so much that even the way we were doing things before was not enough to reach people the way we wanted to reach them. The penetration of the traditional press was becoming significantly diminished. We were having trouble getting the message we wanted to get out, but at the same time, because of the power of social media, the messages that other people wanted to get out about us were breaking through to people. So we tried a spaghetti strategy—throw a lot of things against the wall and see what sticks, and to be very willing to take on risk that under traditional political rules you wouldn’t.
It seems that in your initial digital efforts, like YouTube or Facebook appearances, you were using the language and grammar of traditional media. But at a certain point you adopted the formats of these new channels.
That’s right. In the early days we would view an interview with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook the same way we would view an interview with Steve Kroft for 60 Minutes. Over time we recognized that we needed to go where the conversations were happening. After the midterm elections, the President instructed us to double down our efforts, to try to get more innovative and more aggressive. His view was you have this big battle when you think about how you’re going to communicate in the digital space, because authenticity is the coin of the realm in the digital space. But in politics, discipline is the coin of the realm. Sometimes there can be tension there. So we decided to take on additional risk. Buzzfeed is a perfect example of this. We knew that the Buzzfeed video would do very well with the Buzzfeed audience and with social media, but it would cause a lot of criticism from some pundits and media critics.
Talk about the criticism.
There were a lot of [charges that] we’re coming up with all these clever things to do anything we possibly can to avoid talking to the White House press corps. That’s not actually our strategy. This is not an either/or strategy: it’s an and/both.
In some ways it’s no different. Any politician is always looking for a format where they can show who they really are, show their true selves. What is different is that we’re trying to speak to a very specific audience that congregates in a specific place and talk to them in a way in which they are likely to be communicated with. If we’re doing an interview with Vox, we’re going to do an interview with specifics of the policy-oriented questions Vox readers look for. Buzzfeed is different in its own way, which is why we had a serious interview with Ben Smith but also a funny video, because that’s what they’re looking for.
This disaggregation of the media is very challenging for a White House. You can no longer just have a nationally televised address and speak to 150 million people. So you have to work 15, 20, 30 times harder than previous presidents to have the same impact. But the upside is, you can go talk to people [directly]. Prior to having all these different outlets, the Washington press corps could decide what the topic of the day was. Let’s say it’s Ebola—that’s going lead all the news, as it should, it’s a serious thing. But we don’t want to talk just about Ebola, we also have a message about healthcare because we’re getting ready for the enrollment season. Ten years ago we would have had no real way of communicating that. But now the President can answer a bunch of Ebola questions but we can also have healthcare-specific content for WebMD users.
Are there metrics that show that this stuff actually works?
There are. We were able to track the people who clicked from the link at the end of the “Between Two Ferns” video [on Funny or Die with Galifianakis], and it led to a huge spike in people actually filling out applications to sign up for healthcare. On the Buzzfeed video we had a massive increase in Facebook referrals to Healthcare.gov.
Both of those showed the President is really game to try different stuff. Do you ever suggest things that he bounces because they’re not “presidential”?
We’re usually pretty good about filtering things before they get to him on things like that. In the case of “Between Two Ferns,” because of the original problems with the healthcare.gov website, we were pretty far behind the ball and we had to throw a couple Hail Mary’s. But it’s a gut thing. We’re willing to try things that some folks in Washington will say is un-presidential. I’ve always been of the view that people want to see their President periodically not taking himself too seriously. He has very good comic timing. So he does very well on these videos.
You talk about the importance of authenticity. The first time you see some of these videos, you go, “Wow, this is super transgressive.” But after the fifth or sixth one, it doesn’t have the shock value of a President doing things you wouldn’t think a President would do. When does authenticity turn into shtick?
We have to watch that. That’s true of all things we do, even non-funny things: when you do the same type of speech over and over again. But we always have to remind ourselves here at the White House that we are the only ones that watch everything the President does. If you’re looking at Venn diagrams of the audience of ESPN, the Facebook content we use, the press, there’s not a ton of overlap there of people who will have seen him twice, let alone three times doing those things. So he’s always going to feel more overexposed to the people whose job it is to watch him than the average public.
I think the one time you might have jumped the shark was with the YouTube stars.
We are very good at finding the New York Times columnist to reach out to and talk about our climate plan. But online influencers—YouTube creators being a great example—have important followers we want to reach, too. We knew we would get some critics from the traditional Washington reporters who would say they asked a bunch of softball questions. But [the YouTube stars are] asking the questions that they think their audiences want to hear. Which is why they’re so popular. It’s not a substitute for a White House press conference or an interview with a traditional mainstream journalist. It’s just another way of trying to engage.
You broke protocol by pre-releasing the State of the Union speech here on Medium. Was that debated within the White House?
It was mildly controversial within the White House. Whenever you take a tradition that’s been around for decades and say you want to undo it at the last minute, people can get a little uncomfortable with it. But when we explained the rationale, people were on board. I had come to believe personally that this whole idea of the embargoed State of the Union is kind of a farce. In my experience the White House puts out the State of the Union embargoed 20, 30 minutes before the speech. Then the reporters email it to all their sources in Washington, their sources then email it to their friends, and by the end of the speech, everyone in Washington has had a chance to see the speech but the public hasn’t. So we felt, if everyone in Washington can see it, why can’t the public see it? Putting the speech online in a place where people go to read longer-form content made a lot of sense. We felt people received it well and I think that [other people] will do that. A few days after that, Mitt Romney announced he wasn’t running for President, and he posted it on Medium.
Well, everyone should publish to Medium all the time in my view.
Definitely. I mean, that is the gist of this whole conversation. [Indeed, on Pfeiffer’s last day on the job, he posted his farewell on Medium.]
I hear that you’ve visited Silicon Valley leaders to develop recommendations for how to communicate to audiences. Who did you talk to and what did you learn from them?
I don’t want to get too specific because I asked all those people to keep those conversations quiet. But we talked to people involved at all the big platforms and a lot of people who do digital engagement and marketing both in New York and in Silicon Valley as well as people in the VC world, to help us think about what technology is coming next. One of the goals of the project is to insure that we don’t have the perfect, the best strategy in place for March 2016, and then wake up six months from now and realize that three new things have come [into the picture]. That environment is so dynamic.
People stressed to us a couple of things. When I explained our communication challenges, a lot of folks said, “Yeah, its really hard.” It is not unique to us. Everyone is struggling to figure this out. At least, no one I met with has the magic answer.
The second thing was the idea of upping our game when it comes to working with digital influencers. And then the third one is the need for authenticity. Not just from the President but from all the administration officials who have an online presence or an online following. Your Twitter and Facebook needs to be [more than] Obama-bot talking points. It has to be an engagement strategy of actually, like, going back and forth with people, responding to people who disagree with you, or thanking people who say nice things or favorite their tweets. That’s not a natural thing for folks in government because it’s not really what people are trained to do. There’s risk involved and your goal as someone who works in the White House or anywhere in government is to keep yourself off the front page of the newspaper and not get unwanted attention.
How do you picture White House communications in the future—what’s your vision of the environment in 2020?
A bigger part of the job for White House government officials will be online engagement. If you’re doing climate change policy in the White House, instead of getting X number of hours a week to meet with the environmental groups, you will be spending time on Twitter, Facebook or whatever the next social platforms are, engaging people who are interested in that topic. You will not be reaching the quantity of people that you would reach by having a big broadcast television interview but the quality of the outreach will be better because you’ll be getting very engaged people who can take action on behalf of the thing you care about.
And I think that—and this one is tricky—a White House will have to have many more resources dedicated to producing content. We have a lot of people around here who write written words—speeches, talking points, press releases—and you will need people who are creating visual, graphical and video images to communicate the same message. It’s tricky because you don’t want to be in a world where it is propaganda. You’re going to have to vet this and give it scrutiny, but there is an insatiable appetite for content out there. Your traditional news outlets don’t have the resources to produce the amount of content that the Internet requires on a 24/7 basis.
There’s this funny thing where it’s like, if we put out a press release, it is accepted as a proper form of Presidential communication. But if we put out a video, that’s somehow propaganda. The mentality is going have to shift [to acknowledge that] a video is just a more shareable, more enjoyable way of communicating the same information as the press release. Everyone is going to have to adjust to that.
Can you give an example where one of your nontraditional efforts flopped?
There are things that have not performed as well as I would have thought. We did a video a couple of weeks ago to announce the ACA enrollment numbers on Facebook; we’re trying to break more news directly on digital platforms. And we did a video. It did fine, a couple million views, but that was not as good as some other recent content. I think the thing I missed was that the question of whether we had reached a certain number in ACA enrollment was a big discussion among reporters here, but no one who is on Facebook was really super curious about that.
Maybe you needed a better headline.
(Laughs) Yes. Ten reasons why you won’t believe what we saw in this video! But the important lesson there was that while the press was very interested in whether we got to 10 or 11 million sign-ups, to the public it really doesn’t matter.
One last question relating to your departure from the White House. Now that Jay Carney filled the Amazon communications job, what Silicon Valley company are you going to be working for?
My first task is to go on a long vacation.
They all say that.
It’s true. I don’t know what I want to do next. I spent my entire career either working in the White House or trying to get to work in the White House and so this is a real leap into an unknown for me. I am curious to see if there is a way to continue exploring how we can successfully disseminate information in this media environment, whether it’s at one company or a series of projects or something. Whether that’s an actual thing I’ll be involved in or whether I’ll just watch from the sidelines is an open question.