WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the sequestration showdown in its final days, I slummed in the West Wing last week. The nominal purpose was to witness the gradual descent of the White House press corps into irrelevance. The consequence was to see the Relationship Era play out firsthand.
It was a noisy week, as the clock wound down on the game of fiscal chicken between the Obama Administration and House Republicans. The President was staging pop-in events to dramatize the pending calamity of draconian budget cuts. Speaker of the House John Boehner was hunkered down at the Capitol, miraculously digging his heels into the marble floor.
And the press, as usual, pressed on. They duly recorded the briefing statements by Press Secretary Jay Carney. They trundled into on-background meetings with top officials. They heard remarks from cabinet secretaries. They perfunctorily knocked out stories about the above. And they battled, with very little success, for access to the President.
White House Correspondents Association President Ed Henry -- the White House voice of the magnificent Fox News Channel -- had just finished writing a scathing letter to Carney after a historic event to which the press was kept in the dark. I refer, of course, to the golf match between Obama and Tiger Woods. Had something momentous happened -- assassination attempt, triple-bogey, cocktail waitress, whatever -- there would have been no media eyewitness.
But it was the principle of the thing, and the principle -- as Ann Compton of ABC told me -- was access.
“To shut the media out to the extent this administration has, I think, is a disgrace,” she said.
Of course, the fact is that the White House has not marginalized the media. The White House has marginalized mass media, where the steady loss of mass has reduced their reach -- and influence -- commensurately. Like every other institution, including consumer brands, the executive branch has found other means to engage with its audience. In fact, by embracing Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and the rest, the White House has become a de facto media house. It is its own channel.
“In order to fulfill his responsibilities to communicate his priorities the president needs to avail himself of all the opportunities to do that,” said Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, “and that’s something we’ve done with a lot of success here.”
Yes and no.
True, Obama -- the supposed “transparency president” -- has fulfilled George W. Bush’s fondest dream of bypassing the mainstream “media filter.” But like most brands, the White House misunderstands the dynamics of the Relationship Era. The evidence is in plain view on the podium of the briefing room. Just aside the iconic White House seals hangs a mammoth flatscreen scrolling such headlines as “President Obama Calls for a responsible Approach to Deficit Reduction.” The source for this scoop: whitehouse.gov/blog.
This is approximately like KFC doing in-house reviews of its own meals on its Kentucky Fried Bloggin’ blog (which KFC, one of the world’s most poorly marketed brands, incredibly does.)
The Relationship Era doesn’t mean using social media and other channels to advertise or publicize or otherwise dictate your message; it means finding areas of common interest and values within to forge conversation and common causes. The stupidity is not that the White House is bypassing the media filter; the stupidity is that the White House is treating these conversation channels as just another loudspeaker for touting its point of view.
Sure, it has bypassed the media filter, only to run into the metafilter, the endless 24/7 social-media processor that synthesizes all inputs to locate real meaning. The more dubious and self-serving the institutional message, the more unforgiving the output. The Twitter hashtag #sequester on Friday refused to hop aboard the administration’s narrative train. On the contrary, it was overwhelmingly sympathetic to GOP intransigence. This, for instance:
Scott Morton @FoundersInk The sun looks a bit brighter, birds singing more, the beer seems colder now that the GOP stood strong. #sequester.
That guy is obviously a small-government true believer, and no doubt immune to the blandishments on the President. But if you wish to find the source of the overall non-GOP hatred, look no further than the press office’s social-media strategy, in Josh Earnest’s words, “to communicate the president’s priorities.” Ah. Announcement mode. But we are no longer in an announcement-friendly universe.
No matter how righteous your argument -- or no matter how efficacious your brand -- success in the Relationship Era does not accrue to those who broadcast, nor even to those who assiduously narrowcast, a unilateral message. It belongs to those who share.