The “Social Media President” Hosts YouTube Town Hall

Mr. Obama has been called the “social media president” and today he showed us why by engaging in his second live town hall forum, this one via socialTV through CNN and YouTube 

Last week the President asked people to submit video questions about healthcare through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. I’m not here to discuss the content of what he said, I will leave that to the myriad of politico talking heads out there. But rather, I’d like to talk about how he used SM channels to further his PR message by broadcasting an interactive Q&A online and on-air.

First of all, I almost clicked away after the live feed began because the first ten minutes were fraught with technical difficulties. We had no video and only intermittent audio: “ank u for ing ere day. ppy to av you all here to cuss sident’s lthcare form. This ery ortant ssue for illions ricans. So ateful to ll u ing ere.”

During those first ten minutes, this blog post began with: What could have been a terrific social media coup for President Obama is – at the moment – an incredibly annoying technical failure.

Fortunately, just as I was about to click away, we got video and a minute after that, the audio came in. So … what did I think?

From a PR perspective – this is a great concept! As I’m sure you saw in earlier reports, just a few hours after the President announced he was taking video questions, Google reported 6,932 people submitted 7,037 vids on YouTube and had already cast 236,048 votes as to which questions they would most like to see asked. The numbers only grew from there with reports indicating several hundred thousand questions were submitted. (The March town hall did not involve YouTube videos, but instead asked for questions through the White House’s site. 93,000 people submitted a total of 104,000 questions and cast 3.5 million votes on which were most important – legalizing marijuana was famously voted to the top).

For a President seeking to further his image of openness and transparency, this was a strong strategic move. And, let’s face it, this was also a great way to use social media and PR to drive his political agenda because he was certainly able to get some zingers and strong sound bites out there.

The moderator, Valerie Jarrett, insisted the President had not seen the questions in advance – although I’m certain his PR team did and prepped him accordingly. I’d expect nothing less.

He even jokingly acknowledged this when one vid question had a mother and daughter. When the little girl said her parents can’t afford healthcare, the President responded, “as somebody with two daughters I’m a sucker for anyone who uses their daughter in their video like that. Something my staff knew when they saw this earlier.”

Nonetheless, all of his answers did seem thoughtful and relevant. And, by having his staff select questions that spoke to his agenda, he didn’t spin away and stayed on the specific subject at hand.

There was a touching moment when a woman from the audience broke down in tears explaining that she has cancer for the second time and no health insurance or income to pay for treatment. The President looked genuinely touched and asked her to come down to the stage so he could give her a hug and speak more personally. He promised his team would help find a solution for her that’s within the laws today.

He also (wisely) took the time to demonstrate that this woman is why we can’t wait to solve this problem. He emphasized that he just doesn’t understand how anyone can claim healthcare is fine in the face of stories like hers.

It was great PR and I applaud whomever among his staff selected that woman to speak. It’s so easy for healthcare to appear to be “someone else’s problem” or just so complicated and boring and impersonal that people tune it out. This woman definitely allowed the President to bring his message home, so to speak.

I do have a few complaints about the event however. Apart from the technical difficulties, there was another delay to getting into the Q&A: the President himself. He gave a rather lengthy speech at the outset. Now, certainly I understand some opening remarks are warranted and great speaker though he is, I tuned in to see a live Q&A not a prepared speech. So, I would have opted for more brevity there.

My other complaint is that there just didn’t seem to be enough YouTube Q&A. The President took three YouTube questions and three audience questions. The moderator also tossed out an additional question as something “being talked about on Facebook and Twitter right now” which was a smooth move because she was able to craft the question as she wanted it. I know seven questions is a lot when you look at it in total. But, I guess I had more of a social media interaction in mind. I thought there would have been a greater emphasis on questions from YouTube than the audience.

Still, the overall campaign is great PR for the administration and a terrific use of SM channels. All in all, I’m pleased to see this administration is still employing these tools. As I said once before, we did witness the first social media election and the Obama administration has absolutely had their finger on the pulse of SM from day one. So, the next time your client says, “I just don’t know if we should engage in social media,” you can always say, “well, it’s good enough for the President of the United States…” Of course, if they aren’t a fan, that might be a bad move…so follow your gut on that one!


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