Pity the Washington press corps. It was bad enough that Stephen Colbert basically called them a bunch of stenographers at the glitzy White House Press Association dinner a few years ago. But tonight, when both parties make an end run around the media and turn to the social nets to chitchat directly with the American people, White House reporters—whose beat used to be one of the most coveted at any news organization—might wonder if even their stenography is superfluous these days.
State of the Union addresses have traditionally been highly mediated affairs. The American people have sat on the outside looking in as the President speaks to Congress, and then members of Congress speak to the press.
But tonight, get ready to rumble. While both political parties will continue to speak to the press during the various network and cable post-game shows, they’ll also be spread far and wide across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube having their own un-mediated conversations with constituents.
"On both sides of the aisle, this is going to be the most wired State of the Union in history," Matt Lira, director of new media for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, tells Fast Company.
During the speech itself, the White House—apparently realizing this is a PowerPoint world—will post charts and other information to a special section of whitehouse.gov, in what it’s calling an "Enhanced" State of the Union. Meanwhile Speaker of the House John Boehner’s press staff will be blogging at Speaker.gov/blog providing commentary about and fact-checking the President’s address.
But the real action will take place following the speeches. The White House has lined up a series of officials to take questions from regular folks via Twitter, Facebook, and the White House website. (Twitter questions can be submitted by directing them to @whitehouse with the hashtag #sotu.) Among the policy makers answering the questions will be Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy Roberto Rodriguez, Director and Aide to the Senior Advisor David Simas, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes.
Another full court press takes place on Thursday. During a press conference that will be streamed live that day (2:30 p.m. ET), President Obama will answer the top-rated video questions posted to his YouTube channel. (He'll also take questions posted to Twitter with the hashtag #askobama.) And various White House officials will have online "roundtables" with posters on Facebook throughout the day.
Meanwhile, Republican digital strategists are advising their Congresspeople to dive headfirst into the online conversations. Answer people's questions, they're saying, but also just chitchat as if you were at a cocktail party. Respond to the comments people post to Twitter and Facebook, tell people when you agree with their comments, and toss in facts and other information that would be useful to the conversations already taking place. The strategists are also advising their politicians to record video replies to some constituent questions, which they'll post to YouTube, including on Cantor's channel.
In fact, the Republicans consider speaking directly to constituents so important that some members will go to the social nets before they talk to the likes of CNN and Fox. "There are going to be some high-profile members who are going to go digital first and then go to the broadcasts," Lira tells Fast Company. The social media strategy is "so much more purposeful than it’s ever been. It’s taking its place alongside the traditional media."