Is the President's PR Barrage Working?

From '60 Minutes' to Leno, Obama Has Been Inescapable as He Pitches His Economic Agenda

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Have you seen or heard President Barack Obama pitching his stimulus plan lately? If you say no, you are clearly either lying or actually living under a rock.

President Obama is looking to calm the growing fear and anger within an electorate that has had to watch its salaries get cut and homes taken away while financial-service industry executives take home multimillion-dollar bonus checks.
President Obama is looking to calm the growing fear and anger within an electorate that has had to watch its salaries get cut and homes taken away while financial-service industry executives take home multimillion-dollar bonus checks. Credit: AP
In the past few weeks the president, along with his wife, Michelle, have easily been on more magazine covers and done more TV and newspaper interviews than Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears combined. In the past week Mr. Obama, was seen on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," a first for a sitting president; in a half-hour sit-down with Steve Kroft on CBS's "60 Minutes"; and filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket on ESPN. Even the queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey, took a back seat to the first family when she shared the cover of her eponymous magazine for the first time, with Ms. Obama.

Mr. Obama will also hold a prime-time press conference tomorrow night across all major networks.

The reason for the PR blitz is twofold. Mr. Obama is looking to drum up support among citizens and politicians alike for his nearly $800 billion stimulus plan and his $3.6 trillion 2010 budget proposal. But he is also trying to calm the growing fear and anger within an electorate that has had to watch its salaries get cut and homes taken away while financial-service industry executives, some whom contributed significantly to the current financial mess, take home multimillion-dollar bonus checks funded by taxpayer bailouts.

But a number of political communications professionals say the PR campaign is also making the president more human, as he communicates directly with those outside the Beltway, who most likely aren't nightly viewers of Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow.

The numbers clearly show that people are tuning in to see what he has to say. CBS said today that Mr. Kroft's interview with Mr. Obama on "60 Minutes" was seen by "at least 16 million viewers." Meanwhile, the president's appearance on "The Tonight Show" on NBC generated the program's best ratings since 2005, according to both NBC and preliminary figures from Nielsen Media Research.

'Using every tool'
"The guy's using every tool in the communications toolbox at a time when it's necessary," said Michael Feldman, founder of the Glover Park Group, a Washington-based communications-strategy firm. "The administration is not painting by the numbers on this one. This is an aggressive all-out push, and he's trying to reach people not just where they work or where they normally consume information but where they live."

So is it working? With reports of the president's approval ratings in the high 50s to low 60s, it doesn't seem to be hurting. Mr. Feldman said he doesn't know for sure that the PR push is working, but "I get a sense that it is." He said the one thing he feels the administration is doing well is being creative and effectively using different platforms and outlets, a move he said is commensurate with the changing times.

"People made a big deal that he was the first sitting president to go on Leno," Mr. Feldman said. "But we have learned that's where a lot of people get their information -- the monologue and other unconventional places. And this administration recognizes that, and they are going there to help tell their story and communicate to the American people."

Too much worry about overexposure
Bob Shrum, an adviser at independent PR agency Edelman and a veteran political consultant who ran John Kerry's losing presidential bid five years ago, said Mr. Obama and his administration are strongly defying the "old wisdom" that a president can be hurt by overexposure. Mr. Shrum said politicos too often worry about overexposure; in a nonstop media cycle, the smart move is to have the best and most persuasive communicator out there leading the charge. "It's a bold decision to challenge the idea of overexposure, but I think it's the right decision," Mr. Shrum said. "So far it seems to have paid off."

Mr. Shrum said he also likes some of the things that have managed to get under people's skin in the past week, such as Mr. Obama's comment on "The Tonight Show" that his bowling score reflected that of a Special Olympics athlete, or that he laughed on '60 Minutes' while discussing the economy.

President Obama's appearance on 'The Tonight Show' on NBC generated the program's best ratings since 2005.
President Obama's appearance on 'The Tonight Show' on NBC generated the program's best ratings since 2005. Credit: NBC
"Leno was interesting, because [Mr. Obama] managed to explain his policies in a way people could comprehend and relate to," Mr. Shrum said. "The fact that he can smile and laugh at himself shows that he has a certain sense of perspective. I don't think people minded that he laughed, because it shows he's a real person, and that means he will eventually make a mistake like the Special Olympics comment."

Getting maximum reach
Terry Holt, partner in HDMK, a communications-strategy firm in Washington, said the administration has done a good job of spreading out Mr. Obama's public profile to get the maximum reach possible.

"On Leno he speaks to the 'American Idol' crowd," Mr Holt said. "On '60 Minutes' he speaks to a more educated and elite audience, and tomorrow night he is using all the trappings of his presidency to gather support for himself."

Mr. Holt said the Leno appearance may not have been the best thing because it put him in front of an audience he didn't need and exposed him to dangers he doesn't need to face.

"And that's exactly what happened with the Special Olympics statement," he said. "This should have been all offense, this gift he has for connecting with people could get him along way, and unfortunately it hasn't been smooth, and he's been forced to take these steps too early in the process. The AIG bonus story was the worst week of the Obama presidency, and it forced them to look like they were playing defense in an eroding political situation."

Glimpse of president's 'inner smartass'
Rich Masters, a partner at Qorvis Communications, said the laughter offered a glimpse into the president's "inner smartass." "As long as he leaves the lame one-liners like the Special Olympics at home, the humor and making fun of the absurdity of the situation we are in right now is a good and healthy thing," Mr. Masters said. "He can't go overboard with it, and right now he is striking a pretty decent balance of it."

Mr. Masters said Mr. Obama has taken a page out of the PR playbooks of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who communicated regularly with voters through venues such as fireside chats or big rallies. "The president is a student of history and has looked at the presidents who have stayed holed up and hunkered down in the White House, like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush," Mr. Masters said. "They worked around the clock nonstop, and the PR message they put forward was they are working every day for the people, but the problem was they were in that bubble, and it looked like they were out of touch."

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