The White House is trying to gin up engagement for Tuesday's State of the Union in a format viral media outlets discovered to be effective long ago. This morning, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer published a listicle.
On Medium, Pfeiffer posted a piece titled: "A State of the Union Watch Guide (From Someone Who Knows What's in the Speech)," a headline whose style is unmistakably "webby."
To win the public's attention you can't just saturate one stream—as the State of the Union does, appearing on what feels like nearly every television channel—you have to saturate all of them.
Not many insights follow. Pfeiffer tells us Obama will talk about the economy. Surprise. He does offer one mild tease, though. "On Tuesday night, [Obama] plans something a little different," he writes. "Consider it 'A Very Special Episode" of the State of the Union.'"
For the White House, Pfeiffer's blog post (and his previous entries along the same lines on Medium) are one part of an answer to an increasing problem: People don't watch the State of the Union as much as they used to. Last year, only 33.3 million tuned in, down considerably from the 20-year high of 66.9 million (President Clinton's first state of the Union). From 1993 to 2012, an average of 41 million people tuned in each year.
Yet the White House has more reasons to want its message to reach people than ever before. Faced with improving-but-still-middling poll numbers and an adversarial Congress, Obama needs popular opinion on his side and finally has the chance to capitalize on some momentum. Tuesday night offers Obama his biggest megaphone, and its volume has been attenuating year by year.
The Pfeiffer post isn't an exercise in content, it's an exercise in form. A televised speech alone is not enough to saturate the population with the president's message. The White House knows this. "The mainstream media still matters a great deal, but you can't just do that anymore," White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. "You have to work harder to reach a larger audience." The White House appears to be taking cues from television spectacles that truly do grip the nation.
Think about it: The Super Bowl (audience: 100 million-plus), the Oscars (43 million), the recent Golden Globe awards (19 million), are all television spectacles that are impossible to ignore across media. There are hashtags cooked up by the networks' marketing department. There are tie-ins to Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest—you name it. The stars of the programs flood late-night talk shows. They're the subject of gossip and debate on the morning programs.
To win the public's attention, you can't just saturate one stream—as the State of the Union does, appearing on what feels like nearly every television channel—you have to saturate all of them.
The White House is throwing the digital kitchen sink at the State of the Union. During the speech, WhiteHouse.gov will run an interactive live feed, packed with charts and supplementary information. Then, the New York Times reports, the digital media team "is preparing to flood social media channels" with excerpts and video clips.
"We think of four audience types"Š," Pfeiffer writes. "The TV Watcher who watches it live, the 'Two Screen' Viewer watching on TV with a tablet or smartphone in hand, the Livestreamer who will watch on WhiteHouse.gov with special enhanced content, and the Social Consumer, who won't watch the speech at all, but will discover our content and policy through their social media feeds."
Still the White House has a hill to climb. In the lead-up to Tuesday night, Facebook has been tracking which demographics have been most engaged. Facebook has shared the information with National Journal. Here are the top demographic groups.
1. Women 65+
2. Men 65+
3. Men 55-64
4. Women 55-64
5. Men 45-54
It clearly isn't the kids. So the White House is trying something new. Over the course of the week, the president will be appearing on YouTube to talk with three webcast hosts who have a combined subscribership of 13.8 million. Maybe that will make up for the gap.
Obama's communications team has been inventive in this area, putting the president on content channels atypical for the office: Funny or Die's Between Two Ferns, The Colbert Report, and so on. Adviser Valerie Jarrett announced Obama's paid-leave initiative recently on LinkedIn, bringing in 380,000 readers.
Perhaps one legacy of the Obama administration will be that such channels are no longer seen as atypical. Because the communications realities that all media are adapting to—short attention spans, abundance of inputs—are also true for the presidency.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Dan Pfeiffer's title at the White House.