Will there be new communication channels in the Obama administration?

There is quite a lot of chatter around the intertubes about changes in the communication environment that happened between the last and this election and how those changes may be affecting the way the new White House communicates to people as well as how the new White House will receive communications from the people.
A lot of people are impatient – they want to see everything in place right this moment. Easy, guys! The inauguration is on January 20th. Until that time, Bush is the President and the Obama communications folks have time to think through, design and implement communication channels that we will definitely NOT see until the inauguration or a little bit later. So, you can pore over Change.org all you want in search for hints of the future, but it is unlikely you will see anything truly informative until January 20th at the earliest.
But in the meantime, speculation abounds.
This NYTimes article lays down the arguments pro and con (and check out the FriendFeed discussion as well – quite telling to see how some techie folks do not understand this is not a technological problem at all).
The problem is this: if a President says or writes something that is recordable – and technology is irrelevant, it could be handwriting, a magnetophone or an 8-track – it can be subpoenad by Congress. The article explores the tensions between the need for a President to have confidentiality about important matters of the state, and the need to open up new mode of communications fit for the 21st century mindset of the Facebook generation (Note: “facebook generation” has nothing to do with the actual Facebook site, or with a particular age – it is a frequently-used shorthand term for a mindset of continuity and openness in communication).
This is why Bush stopped using e-mail the day he became the President. Everything that the President says or writes becomes official record. New technology allows one to communicate too much and too informally. Chatting with friends over e-mail becomes a potential liability for the officials of such high ranking.
What is new is that Obama is the first President with that “facebook generation” mindset of constant, open communication, as opposed to a bubble-boy, smoke-filled back-rooms, secretive types that the previous 43 Presidents were. The laws, customs and trappings of his new job are going to be conflicting with his modern instincts towards openness. And people are starting to talk about a potential need to alter these out-dated laws in order to allow Obama to lead a more transparent government.
We shall see what actually happens, but we can expect, at least until/unless there are legal changes, that all the e-mailing will be done by staffers and not Obama himself. He is also going to be the first President in history to keep a laptop on the Oval Office desk (doesn’t this sound quaint?)! He will likely use the computer not to broadcast or communicate anything himself, but only to get informed (perhaps via an RSS Feed).
Another confusion in online chatter about potentially new communication is that people do not make a distinction between centrifugal (broadcasting, outwards) communication and centripetal (listening, inwards) communication.
The best example is probably this Slate article. I think Disckerson is confused. The new Prez will experiment with a number of new ways to communicate. Some of it is inside out, some is outside in. Posting the radio address on YouTube is the part of inside out. It is not the only tool and should not be looked at in isolation. Yes, it is part of his PR, but it is targeted to a set of people who past Presidents did not and could not reach: exactly the same people who are the most likely to use OTHER channels of communication to talk back to him. What Dickerson did in this text was sorta like focusing on a Food Chain and not seeing the Food Web (or forest for the trees, choose your own metaphor) – a lack of ecological thinking by a member of an old media class that thinks too linearly.
Brian Solis has collected probably some of the best ideas on the entire issue, and you should also read the various links and ideas in Josh Bernoff’s post and Lidija Davis’ post.
Obama’s first radio address was also filmed. The movie was posted on Change.org, and also on YouTube:

People like Dan Farber and Allen Stern are worried about favouritism – why YouTube and not other video services? Answer: if the only place they place a video is Change.org, then someone else will put it on YouTube, perhaps edited, with open comments, who knows what else. By posting it on YouTube themselves, the Obama comms folks are putting a degree of control over the message. In the next few months, they may decide to do the same on several other video-hosting services. This was just the first address, and YouTube, being such an 6000lbs gorilla (or is it an elephant in the room?), is the obvious place to go and test the waters first before embarking on a more ambitious program.
Also, a more ambitious program requires building the communications team. Which requires hiring people, including a Chief Conversation Officer, perhaps this guy (or me – I can do it, that’s my job right now anyway). That process has just started. People like Secretary of State are much more important positions to fill first. So, have some patience….

8 responses to “Will there be new communication channels in the Obama administration?

  1. It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out. I think we could see a lot of parallels with Tony Blair in 1997. Blair also came across as someone who would listen, but we all know how that ended. I think he did complain about being in a bubble: he couldn’t have a free conversation with everybody because he knew too much, and he couldn’t put a foot wrong because the press would seize on it.

  2. After Obama takes office, the relationship between Taiwan and Washington will become closer. However, the U.S. will continue to stand by the One-China Policy, the three Sino-U.S. Joint Communiques, and the Taiwan Relations Act. It will also objects to any changes in the current political situation in the Taiwan Strait. With the rise of China, the U.S. still needs Chinas assistance for resolving foreign affairs with Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Therefore, it is certain that the U.S. will not change its position regarding to its policy for Taiwan.

  3. What does this have to do with communications between Obama and the American people?

  4. The YouTube posting legitimizes YouTube like nothing else could. (The people who run it are probably stumbling around now, going ‘Wow!’.) It also legitimizes Obama in the eyes of the digitally-native segment of our population who grew up with mouse in hand before they could read.
    Last week, I sent a civil rights proposal to Obama’s organization. I’m someone who gave up writing letters to my Congressional representatives back in the 70s, and gave up writing letters to the editor in the 80s. Even if my participation never goes anywhere, I no longer feel utter hopelessness. It’s weird, feeling slightly hopeful. It’ll take some getting used to.

  5. I agree with the last comment (6EQUJ5) regarding the choice of YouTube. Nothing stops anyone from re-posting the address edited and with open comments, so I don’t think that control was the reason.
    On a related noted, it seems that very few people in the US are aware of attempts of the Russian president to utilize “new media” for direct communication with people. I find quite a lot of similarities between that project and change.gov (I wrote a little bit about it here: http://www.thinkmacro.org/?p=322).
    It will be interesting to see how both projects will evolve.

  6. Good for Obie!
    And he proves a point I have suspected along: Most hour-long Presidential speeches don’t say anything that couldn’t be said in five minutes 😉 Not mention a lot less boring…
    I couldn’t help but think, as I watched that, what the alternative would have been – having a guy in the oval office who can’t use a computer.
    That alone cinches it for me. I’m soooo glad we didn’t elect the other guy!

  7. The clip can now be found on a number of other hosting sites. The Silicon Valley types, the only ones who really know these sites or care, made sure that the videos show up on their own sites. Perhaps that is what “viral” means – the WH can post it in one place and trust the techies to spread it elsewhere, including into nooks and crannies that only Web Developers have ever heard of.

  8. This goes to show how the US and the world are progressing technologically. Soon, Facebook and Youtube will be out of style and something new will take their places. It’s interesting to see how even the soon-to-be president of the US uses technology on a daily basis to stream his thoughts out to the world.