Obama the “puppet master”? What White House communications can tell us about the change in public communication

This story from Politico is very enlightening. The headline is this: mainstream media power is rapidly waning and the Obama administration understands and is taking full advantage of the change.

I avoid politics here, but politics and crisis communication are closely linked. As one former White House press aide told me: every day in the White House is a crisis. The level of media and public focus is unrelenting, and the stakes are high.

President Obama states flatly that his administration is the most transparent ever. The White House press corp couldn’t disagree more. Here is a quote from the Politico article:

“The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace,” said ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton, who has covered every president back to Gerald R. Ford. “The president’s day-to-day policy development — on immigration, on guns — is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it. There are no readouts from big meetings he has with people from the outside, and many of them aren’t even on his schedule. This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.”

So, who is right? Perhaps both. And the difference is the Internet, digital communications, social media, and direct engagement–all the things we talk about here.

I remember clearly early in the president’s first term when he announced a press conference, not by a media alert, but through social media alone. Having seen first hand during the Gulf Oil Spill the way in which this administration demanded and took full control of the communications about the spill–much to the dismay of some of the government communicators and certainly BP–it is clear that the directive from the top is to control, manage and manipulate. That is certainly consistent with Politico’s analysis.

The lesson for crisis communications is quite clear. The old game was “media management,” which in my mind was always an oxymoron. I can no more manage the media than I can manage the moon. Now the game is direct communications. That means knowing who is important to you, establishing on-going channels of communication, directly engaging, being responsive, quick to catch and correct rumors and misinformation. Where does the media fit in this? Reporters are one of the important audiences–but with their own agendas and own motives (ratings). They are far less important than most in crisis communication continue to believe. They do so, I believe, because “media management” is what they know, and is to some degree “easier” than all that work of direct engagement.

 

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