WASHINGTON: Eugenio Derbez is a Mexican actor with a sceptical view of the coronavirus vaccine and a large following on Instagram.
So, naturally, the White House couldn’t wait to set him up for an interview with Anthony Fauci.
Last month, Derbez spoke to America’s most famous pandemic doctor over the comedian’s Instagram Live about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, a half-hour of online content that was eventually seen by more than two million people. The session was a success, according to White House officials, especially given that Derbez’s social media presence overlaps very little with the administration’s own online platforms.
“Those are people who will never see content from the White House, because they’re not tuned in to what we’re doing every day,” said Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy who also served as the Biden campaign’s digital director.
Rather than a one-off foray, Fauci’s Instagram interview is part of a comprehensive online communication strategy from the White House – with output ranging from secondslong clips of President Joe Biden’s speeches, often posted on Instagram Reels; behind-the-scenes footage at the White House, as when soccer star Megan Rapinoe visited; to an active if Beltway-focused presence on Twitter, from chief of staff Ron Klain.
In a scattered online ecosystem, the goal with every effort is the same: Go where Americans receive their news and information, no matter the platform, and try to deliver a message that will resonate with the audience. Even if it means sending Fauci to do interviews with actors on Instagram.
“It’s not a new tactic,” Flaherty said in an interview with McClatchy. “What’s new is that there’s real resources behind it here.”
Every administration since the popularisation of the Internet has had an online communication strategy. But for Biden – perhaps the first president in the modern era who explicitly campaigned on the promise of taking up less of the public’s attention than his predecessor – the outreach has taken on extra importance, amid his ongoing efforts to sell to the public his multitrillion-dollar legislative agenda.
While former US President Donald Trump would routinely dominate the country’s attention with a single incendiary tweet, Biden’s more calibrated messages require more effort to disseminate and grab the public’s attention.
“I don’t think any White House wants less attention,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as former President Barack Obama’s first press secretary. “How they’re approaching this is a little bit less saturation, and a little bit more strategy.”
Gibbs recalled how early in the Obama administration he would suggest the president make an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and receive disapproving looks from other White House officials, who thought it was beneath the president to appear on something other than a serious news show.
Communication strategies have changed quickly since then, he said, because the public’s sources of information have evolved so rapidly that the only way to reach enough voters is to go where they are, regardless of the platform or host.
Only a few years after some Obama aides expressed reservation about an appearance on a late-night comedy show, for instance, the former president went on the mock talk show Between Two Ferns with actor Zach Galifianakis.
“If there even is a news cycle anymore, instead of a series of blurs, it requires that you take that 20-minute speech and cut it into 15-second clips, and target different audiences with different parts of that speech,” Gibbs said.
Flaherty and members of his team have harvested parts of Biden’s high-profile speeches, such as the one last month touting passage of the coronavirus relief bill which was livestreamed online before bits and pieces of it were cut up for digital consumption.
The White House also filmed Biden after the speech, having him look directly into the camera to succinctly explain – in less than 30 seconds – the benefits of the new law before thanking supporters. The brief, direct-to-camera approach is a hallmark of many of Biden’s most successful videos, Flaherty said, adding that they’ve had the most success using Instagram Reels, an online platform of brief video clips.
White House officials have deployed the same approach in recent weeks to build support for Biden’s proposed 1.5-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, with one seconds-long clip showing the president saying only, “High-speed Internet is infrastructure”, on a loop.
“Doing those shorter view clips really allows them to capture people’s attention in the time-span that people want to consume the message on digital,” said Megan Clasen, former adviser to the Biden campaign and veteran digital strategist. “Because a lot of people aren’t going to spend a whole minute watching a video.”
Nearly all of the online content is focused on policy, a reflection of the broader White House communication strategy to avoid the social media drama of the previous administration in favor of focusing on its agenda.
At times, that leads to anodyne messaging. In a major departure from Trump, Biden’s official Twitter account usually sends only rote talking points about the president’s agenda and actions.
Klain, his chief of staff, has a much more active if still relatively drama-free presence on the platform.
On the official White House website, which includes short biographies of every living president, the administration’s digital team also updated Obama’s biography – conspicuously brief during Trump’s tenure – to include information about his presidency. And it added a Spanish-language version to the official site.
Some efforts attract a bigger audience than others. While the short videos posted to Instagram Reels earned many millions of views, many videos posted to the White House YouTube page have received only tens of thousands of views.
One video, for instance, featuring Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explaining the child tax credit included in the pandemic relief law, had received just 58,000 views on the White House YouTube page after being posted two weeks ago.
Some Democrats have also expressed private frustration with the Democratic National Committee, which manages the Biden campaign’s old Facebook account, which has nearly 11 million followers. The Facebook page didn’t make a single new post in February, a critical juncture as Biden was attempting to build support for the Covid-19 relief bill, and went weeks in March between some updates.
The transition from campaigns to public office can also be unexpectedly rough for communications and digital strategists, according to those who have switched between the two roles. Flaherty runs a staff of 20 people, a much smaller operation than during the campaign.
“The transition from 2008 to 2009, we found that that was enormous, right?” Gibbs said. “You’ve got a billion dollars’ worth of ads and a communication staff that is hundreds on a campaign, to where you’re scrapping for dozens in a White House.”
Flaherty says his team’s budget is committed to identifying social media influencers, like Derbez, with big online platforms who can help spread the administration’s message.
It’s all part of a sustained effort to sell pieces of the president’s agenda, both before and long after it’s signed into law.
“You think about selling the rescue plan, that’s not just a three-week tour around the country,” Flaherty said. “That is a yearslong effort for people to know about the benefits of this legislation, and it’s often with people who are not tuned into the Washington conversation.” – dpa