From Fireside Chats To Between Two Ferns

Observations March 13, 2014 7:16 am

FDR famously broadcast “fireside chats” on the radio during his presidency. As impersonal as we view radio today, the communications medium provided FDR with an unprecedented direct, intimate channel to talk to the American public. The fireside chats are credited with increasing the confidence of the country, helping to pass FDR’s New Deal reform program, and contributing to the president’s unprecedented four term win.

Kennedy further broke down the barriers between the high walls of the White House and the public, leveraging the then relatively new medium of television to broadcast the nation’s first political debate. The debate is credited for Kennedy’s win; on air, Kennedy appeared calm and confident while his opponent, Nixon, was pale and shaky. Kennedy’s demeanor once again inspired American confidence, and television increased the president’s ability to connect directly with voters.

And by now, you’ve seen Obama’s interview with Zach Galifianakis¬†on Between Two Ferns. The president freely trades insults with the comedian, destroying the notion of an unreachable and out of reach president. The Internet and social media have once again revolutionized how a president can reach a wider audience, and there has been no shortage of praise for how Obama’s team has navigated the change. Obama’s embrace of new communications channels has been successful for two major reasons:

1. He’s purposeful. Obama’s embrace of Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, as well as affinity for appearing on late night television has a very clear purpose: to reach younger voters. The President of the United States doesn’t have time to appear on talk shows if he isn’t there to plug something, but Obama always has a very clear agenda. On Between Two Ferns, that purpose was to promote the Affordable Care Act. The appearance worked- the day after the interview aired, Funny or Die was the #1 driver to Healthcare.gov, and visits had increased 40%.

2. He doesn’t try to hijack or control the conversation. Whether it’s a Reddit AMA or a chat with Zach Galifianakis, Obama plays by the rules. He doesn’t try to hijack the conversation or demand special treatment, but instead “blends” in by adopting similar behavior as the channel’s audience. This strategy makes him culturally relevant– because if he wasn’t willing to take a few jabs from Zach Galifianakis, make a fool of himself by slow jamming the news on Jimmy Fallon, or open himself up to real, and potentially awkward, questions on Reddit, there would be no point to his appearances. He understands that these communication channels can help him reach young voters- but only if he speaks their language. If he were to use the same language from official speeches like the State of the Union, the message would feel forced. Even worse, it would be more than likely ignored.

Like his predecessors, Obama grasps the potential of new communication channels to better reach voters. Brands should be wise to take note– if a communications strategy isn’t relevant to your brand and can’t create measurable impact, you shouldn’t be engaging. Brands also need to understand the ins-and-outs of platforms before trying to reach their consumers; what works on television doesn’t translate well to social media, and on an even more granular level, what works on Twitter doesn’t work on Facebook. Language and positioning is important, and makes the difference between a brand standing out like a sore thumb or appearing culturally relevant.

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