The Obama Administration: PR Masterminds?

On Monday, Politico posted a story with the traffic-bait headline “Obama, the puppet master“. Why is it relevant to us? Because it’s really about the administration’s masterful use of modern PR tools and techniques to get its message across to the American people–whether the press likes it or not.

So what makes the Obama team’s approach to public relations so brilliant? Let’s review Politico’s assessment of its strategy, point by point:

1. Choose friendly media outlets and avoid tough questions. This is an old chestnut followed by all politicians, and it doesn’t just relate to ideology: Obama went on Fox News more than once. But, as Politico puts it, why answer tough questions from The New York Times or anyone else when you can go on The View?

This is an important point: Obama has given more interviews than any other recent president, but he largely refuses to sit down for print queries with the NYT, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to avoid “tough, unpredictable questions.”

2. Prevent the press from attending bad PR events. Some were a little peeved that the Obama team didn’t allow the press corps to enter the golf club where he played with Tiger Woods this weekend. We wonder why…

3. Create original content. This White House, more than any other, has chosen to communicate directly with the public via original content like videos (check out this “Bo inspects the White House Christmas tree” video), blog posts and day-in-the-life photo streams.

It works: The most-shared Twitter photo of Barack and Michelle embracing after his re-election, for example, was created and distributed by the press team itself–as was the first interview with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. They’ve clearly taken the “create your own content” message to heart.

More recently, the White House responded to the “skeet shooting” controversy by releasing its own photo of the President doing just that–and making fun of its opponents for turning the matter into an “issue” in the first place. The message: strike back.

4. Respond aggressively to negative stories. Every PR pro knows the value of countering unflattering narratives, right? Despite the common belief that every member of the press who doesn’t work for Fox loves the Obama administration, its media relations people have been quick to respond to stories they don’t like–including many of those appearing in The New York Times.

5. Crack down on media leaks. Sure, the White House leaks stories–but only when it’s strategically appropriate. At all other times, they strictly forbid leaks. Every administration (and PR firm) pursues this kind of message control–but the Obama team is apparently stricter than most, leaving many staffers “fearful of talking to reporters” (according to Politico).

6. Use the famous “weekend dump” to minimize coverage of negative stories. Again, everyone does this. But Politico implies that the current administration is better than most at saving unflattering announcements for Friday afternoons when few people are paying attention.

What do we think of these points? Brilliant PR or business as usual?

Can communications firms follow the Obama model for bypassing traditional media outlets in order to communicate more directly with target audiences?