Communication, Transparency, Participation

Those are the three by-words of Barack Obama’s PPR (Presidential PR) strategy.

Macon Phillips, New Media Director for the Obama White HousePrecisely the minute Barack Obama was sworn is as the 44th President of the United States (noon, Jan 20, 2009), Macon Phillips (left), Director of New Media for the White House, published his first blog post, titled Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov.

“President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history,” wrote Phillips.

Communication is the easy part. In the blog/twitter/text era anybody can ‘communicate’ with virtually anybody (but are they listening?). Transparency can be faked or at least the law can be complied with and a public display of ‘transparency’ can lead to the appearance of open government (an improvement over the previous administration).

The most difficult element of this new communication equation is ‘participation.’  To foster citizen involvement in the federal government Phillips announced in his first blog post that “we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”

It didn’t quite work out that way. The Washington Post  reported that the Obama administration did not heed its own mandate on recent legislation.  Of course, running a new media program to reach and engage 380 million Americans is a huge and seemingly impossible task (trying doing it with an organization of a few hundred with a few thousand constituents). They have run into technical issues, as reported in the Washington Post, and you have to wonder – is anybody really reading 5,000 character comments on pending non-emergency legislation, or is this simply a futile exercise in mass venting for the appearance of ‘participation’?

The White House YouTube channel currently has over 30,000 subscribers. The quality of the videos is excellent and they are nicely segmented into easy to search categories. The main White House social media communication channel is WhiteHouse.gov, a blog, or rather a blog portal that leads to many other blogs, according to agenda items, government agencies, etc.  The Obama Twitter channel has been mostly dormant since Jan. 20th, except for an alert on March 25th to join an innovative Open for Questions session through the Internet.  93,000 people submitted 104,000 questions and cast 1.8 million votes on which questions Barack Obama would answer over the net. Obama promoted the event through web video.

The White House has inevitably faced many problems in its rush into social media. By using YouTube are they favoring a third-party provider, rather than serving the videos themselves?  Why not use any of the other video servers? “It’s an ongoing experiment,” said Phillips. Our experiment in democracy has survived wars, economic depressions, man-made and natural catastrophes over the past 250 years … but hey, this federal government social media experiment is close to 100 days old. Where’s the results? Welcome to the 140 character or less, immediate gratification Twitter age. No wonder Phillips is burying his head in his hands.

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