December 12, 2017

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President Obama and Social Media: Dreams and Reality

President Obama and Social Media:  Dreams and Reality

Author’s note: In this article, I once again use the phrase “you bet your bippy.” As last time when I did this, I promised an all-expense paid tour of Eaglon Communications Global HQ in New Hampshire for the reader who can name the original author of the quote. Since I don’t have to pay for it, my offer stands. And I humbly suggest that you visit during the summer months.

Shortly after the November elections, I began a meme, asking some brighter minds than my own what they thought the impact of the election of now President Obama would have on the advancement of social media in government. It’s clearly mainstream in the world of business, but what is going to happen on January 21st, 2009? Or 2010 for that matter?

President Obama clearly demonstrated a link between citizen participation in the electoral process and the clever use of social media. This is likely to continue as he and the Democrats, according to the Los Angeles Times, will:

“…transform his massive grass-roots political machinery into an unprecedented national network to help pass his policy agenda.

Obama said Organizing for America, the new network, would be used as a tool to press for policies on major issues, including the healthcare system, the Iraq war and the development of new energy sources. He also said the effort would be housed in a distinctly partisan place: the Democratic National Committee.”

That will likely help Mr. Obama’s prospects for reelection in 2012, but what about governing and the use of social media? What will change (dot gov)?

In my original blog post, my opinion was “not much,” and I based this upon an article in the Huffington Post that called for a “Wiki White House,” including blogs, streamed meetings, policy wikis, etc. My opinion was and is that very little of that will work when the idealist rubber hits the governance road:

  • Blogs: White house staffers may, in fact, be allowed to have their own blogs, but they will be so watered down by legal concerns that I fear that they might turn into a Twitter feed: “Just went out for coffee. Tastes burnt.” In a town where secrets are coveted but leaks like a sieve, there would be little compelling news to keep a blog fresh, but more importantly, interesting. The lawyers will do what they do, which is lawyer things to death.
  • Streamed meetings: Only the most vanilla meetings will be streamed. There is a reason why reporters are kicked out of the room when the real stuff happens. Anything else would be staged like a FEMA press conference.
  • Daily calendar. The President’s daily calendar would have to omit outside appearances, which would gut its effectiveness, because of Secret Service prohibitions. And why tell the opposition party that you are meeting on something that you might want to keep in-house. To do otherwise would be stupid.

Other people chimed in too on the difficulty of the task, including Geoff Livingston:

“Here are [a few] reasons why Obama isn’t going to be turn the switch on walking in the door:

  • Sheer Girth: We’re talking about 26 federal agencies here, each the size of their very own automobile manufacturer. Think changing those organizations are hard? Try moving a bureaucratic organization that’s got no adherence to Wall Street, no real accountability to anyone (please don’t say Congress), with decades of strange processes and legal entanglements, legacy contracts already in place, and demoralized staff that have been abused for eight years by incompetent political appointees.
  • Culture of Fear: Government employees are afraid that if they do communicate, they will have their butts handed to them courtesy of the Washington Post or some other “investigative reporter” seeking to expose government ills.

No, the challenges for Obama are deep and significant. I expect change we will, but we won’t quickly. Think the 2010-2011 timeframe.”

Jonathan Trenn said:

“Now, no doubt that Obama will be the most Web 2.0 president in history. No doubt his White House will be more open than that of his predecessor. But what we’ll see happen is that most citizens will feel that their lone solitary voice isn’t enough. They’ll need to bind together with like-minded people. And since they all can’t head to Washington, from time to time they’ll make sure that someone does speak for them here. These people are called lobbyists.”

We’ll definitely see change; it just won’t be as engaging as many feel.

There are other great contributors to the debate like David Wescott and Matthew Chamberlin, but my thinking is that Government is a Beast, a battleship that many a president-elect has vowed to change. Do I sincerely hope that our perhaps Blackberry-toting President realizes the power of social media to unleash information, create transparency and make government more efficient? Absolutely.

Do I think that Mr. Obama is going to run into the same buzz saw of Washington homeostasis encountered by his predecessors? You bet your bippy.

Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C and writes the “Intersection of Online and Offline” blog. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 12 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world. Tweet him at mstory123.

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