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From fireside chats to YouTube: Interactive media helps Obama connect with the country

In a social media push by the White House, three popular YouTube users were invited to interview President Obama following the State of the Union. Brian Donahue of CRAFT Media/Digital, William Powers of the MIT Media Lab and YouTube entrepreneur Hank Green discuss with Judy Woodruff how social media and platforms like YouTube may affect the reach and effectiveness of the president’s message.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we take a broader look at digital political strategies now with William Powers. He is a research scientist at the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media lab. Brian Donahue, he's a veteran of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, and a former official at the Republican National Committee. He's a founder and partner at CRAFT Media/Digital. And Hank Green, who was one of the YouTube stars to interview the president today, he has more than two million subscribers to his YouTube channel.

    We welcome all of you to the program.

    Hank Green, you just did a first-of-a-kind sit-down discussion with the president. How did it go?

  • HANK GREEN, YouTube Entrepreneur:

    It went pretty well, I think, though, to be honest, I don't remember very much of it because I was a little bit scared.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Did anything stand out? Can you remember anything of it?

  • HANK GREEN:

    Yes, I have not had a lot of time to debrief because they have been shuffling me around. And I get to talk to lots of really cool — to cool people like you.

    I'm getting a delay in my ear, so if you could go to someone else.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    OK.

  • HANK GREEN:

    It's making it very difficult to talk.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    OK, well, we will come back to you.

    Let me — and we were just looking at a little video of you talking to the president.

    Brian Donahue, who is here with me, as a Republican, you look at the White House doing this. Does it look like something that's a good idea? Should they be doing this?

  • BRIAN DONAHUE, Founder, CRAFT Media/Digital:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, first of all, it's no longer the State of the Union. It's really #SOTU. That's what everybody refers to it now. People following this online through Twitter, through Facebook are doing this through hashtags. And the president and his team does this extraordinarily well.

    They're absolute pros in social media and the new ways in communication. You know, similar to Tom Brady marching down the field on his way to the Super Bowl, they know these plays. They know it well. And — but I would also say, Judy, that the Republicans, they deserve credit as well.

    From 2014 and to now, it seems like they have got their speed together and they're really executing well on social media. So we saw a lot of activity there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It sounds like you're playing catch — you mentioned Tom Brady. I'm thinking of him running down the field with a deflated football.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But we're not going to — we're not going to go there.

    But you're saying Republicans are playing catchup. Do I hear you saying that?

  • BRIAN DONAHUE:

    Well, they did from 2012.

    But what we saw in 2014 with a lot of victories — and there was a lot less Democrats in the chamber on Tuesday night during the State of the Union because Republicans were executing very well in all communications mediums, including social media.

    I think Republicans did an excellent job on Tuesday night, and Joni Ernst deserves a lot of credit as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Who gave the Republican response.

    Bill Powers at MIT, how do you measure effectiveness of something like this?

    WILLIAM POWERS, Laboratory for Social Machines at MIT Media Lab: Right, Judy.

    Well, it was amazing to see Obama being shown the Google Analytics about his speech. And, in fact, that's how you show reach and effectiveness and exactly what happens when this stuff is sent out into social media. There's a whole science of social media analytics that does the analysis and shows the trends.

    And it's actually exploding, and there's all kinds of things we're learning. We're going deeper and deeper into sort of the meaning and seeing the public in a new way. This is the new public sphere, and we're just beginning to understand it, and it's a very, very rich future for science.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Bill Powers, staying with you, what does it bring the White House? What does it bring a politician to engage with this new audience out there through social media, through YouTube?

  • WILLIAM POWERS:

    Right.

    Well, as Ms. Schulman from the White House pointed out, this is an opportunity to speak directly to the people. And presidents in the past have always embraced such opportunities. Think of FDR with the fireside chats. This is a new version of that, you might say.

    In addition, It's a rich medium. You know it's an interactive medium. It's a medium where people can do things and sort of feel part of the conversation, in a way that they — they really can't with traditional media. And, finally, it's a new style of conversation that's the conversation of our moment.

    And a president really has to be able to speak that language and reach those people. And speaking to Hank, there was this wonderful informality that made it feel like a whole different interview from traditional media, which I really enjoyed.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Hank, I'm going to come back to you now. I hope that delay has gone away.

  • HANK GREEN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me ask you, how different do you think your conversation with the president is from, say, when he sits down with a television news anchor, and why is this something you want to do?

  • HANK GREEN:

    Well, it's not the sort of thing you say no to.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • HANK GREEN:

    Even if I didn't want to do it, I think that you still would, you know?

    But I — you know, I want to do it because I have an audience that I feel like sometimes aren't, you know, connected. And they don't necessarily feel like they're part of the country. They feel more like citizens of the Internet, citizen of their Internet communities.

    And I want them to feel like they're part of America because I want them to be involved with the political process, because I think that, without that, democracy doesn't work anymore.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Does it feel different, though, do you think, from other media interviews the president…

  • HANK GREEN:

    Oh, yes. Yes.

    I think that it feels different, but I think that the goal remains the same, which is to inform the American people in the ways that, you know, they — that they connect with media and the ways that they get information.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Brian Donahue, I want to come back to you.

    So, I'm just going to be very crass about it. What does the White House get out of this? How does it help the president? We have pointed out he's not running for reelection. How does it help his agenda to be doing this?

  • BRIAN DONAHUE:

    Sure.

    Well, the new media offers opportunity for the president to extend his message. Twitter, Facebook, online digital engagement increases that echo chamber, so that the president can engage with his base, to push his agenda and his policies, but also reach towards new audiences as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, I mean, does that mean that, for example, on immigration — he wants a certain kind of immigration policy to be passed by Congress. Is this going to make it more possible to get immigration or child care legislation or anything else that he's pushing for?

  • BRIAN DONAHUE:

    Any time that a political leader, including the president, is engaging audiences and helping them to carry his message forward into new networks, into new places, that's effective. That is the way that new media works these days.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Bill Powers, how do you see that? I mean, is it — does this translate into something that has tangible benefit for this president or future presidents?

  • WILLIAM POWERS:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, here we are talking about it, Judy. I think it's resounding around the country, around the world. The president has to go where the people are. And, increasingly, the people are in this medium. You can see the numbers, the TV viewership going down, the social attendance and sharing and so forth going way up, through the roof.

    I mean, there are billions of tweets every week. This is the place where our leaders really have to be, not just the president. He's the one who mastered it first, both in elections, and now I think in pushing his policies. And it is going to extend to everybody else. It just has to happen. This is the future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we are so glad for the three of you to be joining us.

    Hank Green, fresh off your interview with President Obama, Bill Powers joining us from Boston, Brian Donahue here in Washington, thank you.

  • BRIAN DONAHUE:

    Thank you.

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