Mission Impossible: Winning America’s Heart

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Posted: October 9, 2014, 4:42 p.m.
by Brittany Downey.

The 60 Minutes special “What makes us America” played on CBS Sunday, Sept. 28, featuring United States President Barack Obama. Among the topics were relations between the U.S. and Russia, the upcoming mid-term elections and battling the Islamic extremist group known as ISIS.

Since the interview, the president has received backlash across several media outlets for his decisions and comments. Senators have spoken out against his airstrike-only plans and foreign policies. At times it seems he just can’t catch a break. Other times, audiences want to pat him on the back. The ups and downs of audience response are typical of political communication, and the balance is one of great difficulty for those who work in the political arena. Dr. Martin Johnson, political communication professor at Louisiana State University, said finding those right words are nearly impossible.

“President Obama confronts a Washington that has such complex views on what the White House ought to be doing. It’s a very difficult balancing act,” Johnson said. “The idea that there is a clear PR strategy and the president can say some magic words that everyone will think is poised and wonderful is extremely unrealistic. It’s difficult to build a strong foreign policy and then talk about in a way that everyone likes it.”

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What changed?
The 2008 election was a pivotal moment in the movement of digital communication in politics. The McCain and Obama campaigns used the Internet to engage with voters across the country. According to a study by “Journal of New Communications Research,” 10 percent of Americans used social media to learn about the election. Obama had more than two million American supporters on Facebook, while McCain had approximately 600,000. The numbers don’t lie. Hope Peterson, a former communications fellow at the Office of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, has found in her experience that social media is still hot and happening.

“Using social media for campaigning is so important now, and can be a game-changer for candidates. I think voters are looking for things they can relate to, specifically information that reminds them that the candidate is a regular person,” Peterson said. “While it is important for a political figure or candidate to remember their unique voice on social media and not lose sight of what platforms they stand for, I have seen the positive impact social media can have for political figures when they show off a little bit of their personal side as well — highlighting a side that we often forget, a side that people sympathize with, even if they might not agree with them on every platform issue.”

Here and now
Seven years later, President Obama makes headlines around the clock in his efforts to be an effective communicator. The partisan media battles of what is right and wrong with his choices and small mishaps like the “latte salute” are highlighted as he completes his duties as president. How can his public relations advisers possibly keep up with all the press?

“We don’t see all of what [political figures] do,” Johnson said. “They go around national news venues and local news venues, as well as utilizing direct communication with social media. In 2008, [Obama’s] story was he was this one senator and he was a really great communicator. Some people tried to turn that into a liability. I think the president is characterized on lots and lots and lots of other things now.”

Comments and characterizations are a feature of the job as president of the United States. What’s great about the job, however, is the opportunity to connect with different audiences, including those who voted to put them into office. Digital media has transformed this ability to connect and gives those in the political arena yet another method to get their messages across to their audiences in a clear way.

“It’s important to remember that you are speaking to people and not [forget] that human nature responds positively to friendly interactions and empathetic feelings,” Peterson said. “I think it goes a long way to remember your audience is only human, and while they may require hard facts to see progress, a lack of humanization in delivering those messages is never forgotten.”

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