In an attempt to transform the State of the Union into a “trending” topic on social media, the web is now bursting with photos and posts of President Barack Obama’s staff during the “hectic” week of preparations for tonight’s speech.
Facebook, YouTube and Instagram all offer an “inside look” at the making of the address, which is “an important moment when the policy that influences the fabric of the American experiment is shaped,” says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
A president hyping the SOTU speech is nothing new. Lyndon Johnson turned it into a prime-time television event in 1965, writes Paul Farhi in the Washington Post. The only thing changed is the way hype is manufactured.
Social media has become the new publicity arena, with the White House using the same system that proved so successful for Obama during his campaigns.
Multimedia SOTU pages have cropped up on the official WhiteHouse.gov website, and Obama’s Twitter feed — with 41 million followers — has numerous posts on the progress of the speech. The same is true for the White House Facebook and Tumblr pages.
As the SOTU approaches, the media buildup will continue, Farhi writes, reaching its peak during the speech itself. Obama hopes it becomes a “second screen” experience for viewers, similar to watching the Super Bowl and other TV events.
While the President makes his points, relevant facts and charts — all sharable — will appear on various social media platforms. After the speech, administration officials will be available for live chats on Google+ hangouts and Twitter (as well as Telemundo, Univision and NPR).
“Public engagement” is the purpose of the campaign, says Nathaniel Lubin, interim director of White House digital strategy.
“First and foremost,” Lubin tells the Post, “we’re trying to provide content that reflects the mission of the president’s speech.”
Although some journalists see the President’s social media efforts as benign, others see overtones that are sinister.
The Washington Post joined several other media organizations to file a complaint in November over the White House excluding news photographers from formal events, as well as the practice of using social media to mete out photos and videos to the public. They claim it is tantamount to censorship, almost like “placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens.”
But the White House considers SOTU marketing fair game.
Social media goes “hand in hand with traditional media coverage” of the speech, according to White House representative Matt Lehrich, who says it is “a supplement to the coverage,” not a substitute.
Some reporters experienced in covering the White House agree.
“The rule is, you go where your audience is, and that’s what they’re doing,” says Yahoo News White House correspondent Olivier Knox. “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.”
State of the Union addresses rarely boost the popularity of a president, but they can be pivotal moments in a presidency.
“One speech can’t change the poll numbers, but it can start to change the national agenda,” says historian Rick Shenkman from George Mason University. “He can use this to psychologically reset his presidency. If he shows the old Obama magic, he can re-energize his base.”
“If I were them,” he adds, “I’d be using every tool at my disposal, too.”