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Jenna Brayton Discusses President Obama's Digital Communication Strategies

Jenna Brayton
, who served as Associate Director of Content for the Obama White House Office of Digital Strategy, addressed a capacity crowd of students at last night’s Symposia.   Her topic was “The First Digital White House:  A YouTube Presidency, Hashtag Activism, and the Significance of the Shift to the Internet.” 

Ms. Brayton shared with the audience the sweeping and swift changes that have taken place in digital communications between the end of the George W. Bush Administration and the onset of Obama’s.  The Bush Administration communicated mainly through “binders” of papers.  For example, Secretary of State under President Bush, Condoleeza Rice said in 2000 that she seldom used her state.gov email address.   Fast forward eight years to the Obama Administration, which was the first administration to have a Digital Strategy office (alongside a Communications Office).   Much of this was driven by vast changes in technology that took place since the Bush years, but also by President Obama’s eagerness to embrace social media.  In fact, Ms. Brayton shared that President Obama has avidly embraced digital platforms to reach a wider base of citizens.  He was the first president with a Twitter account, and he set a world record (broken soon after by Caitlyn Jenner) for establishing one million followers in a little over four hours on Twitter.  


Ms. Brayton answers questions after her talk to a prospective studentMs. Brayton discussed how her team in the Digital Strategy Office facilitated President Obama’s desire to have a strong social media presence.  She showed segments of his appearance on YouTube star sites (such as Swoozie and GloZell’s) as well as internet shows such as “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld, and “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis.  These internet platforms allowed President Obama to reach a younger demographic of citizens who don’t normally tune into television news shows or read newspapers.  For example, his interview with GloZell in the White House reached her over four million followers.   Another initiative the Digital Strategy Office successfully employed was its $40 hashtag campaign on Obama’s Twitter account to extend the payroll tax cut that Republicans in the House wanted to eliminate (the tax cut amounted to $40 per two week paycheck).   The White House asked its 2.6 million followers what $40 a paycheck meant to them.  The response was overwhelming, with over 2,000 tweets per hour.  The groundswell from Twitter thwarted Republicans efforts to eliminate the payroll tax cut.

 Ms. Brayton shared other examples of the enormous reach that social media has in reaching citizens and how the Office of Digital Strategy continues to think creatively of ways of tapping into diverse social media and internet platforms to advance the President’s agenda.  She also discussed how social media sites are increasingly setting the agenda for the traditional news media to follow.  At the same time, she acknowledged the valid concerns critics have raised about presidential appearances on social media sites.   For example, while Obama’s interview with GloZell may have increased his accessibility and visibility to the people, does it come at the expense of the dignity of the office?   She also engaged the question if raising awareness campaigns on social media (dismissed by critics as “slacktivism”) have the same impact as traditional forms of on-the-ground activism.  These are questions that students were asked to wrestle with themselves  after this very lively and informative talk. 

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