The last decade has witnessed perhaps the greatest disruption in history to America’s media environment as the rise of the Internet has splintered the media landscape into a thousand pieces, fragmenting the president’s audience into niche communities. The story of how the White House communications team quickly adapted to the new digital landscape by sending the president to forums like Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube is a remarkable one, especially since the digital team had to be built from scratch. More than anyone else, Dan Pfeiffer, who recently left his job at the White House as senior advisor and assistant to the president, has led the charge to broaden the president’s audience and to set new precedents for White House communications strategy. Pfeiffer also served as the White House communications director. His last day at the White House was on March 6, 2015. He sat down with the Gate’s Anastasia Kaiser and Chelsea Fine to discuss his role in the media landscape as he worked to bring the bully pulpit into the twenty-first century.
The Gate: What changes would you have made to the White House communications strategy, with the benefit of hindsight?
Dan Pfeiffer: I think I would have moved even faster into the digital sphere and invested more heavily in digital resources.
Gate: Was the president reluctant or eager to engage with new platforms like Tumblr and Reddit?
Pfeiffer: The president was very eager. He intuitively understands the age of the Internet and how people consume and distribute information in these days. He was always looking for ways to be more engaged with the public. If he couldn’t leave the White House to do it, he would do it on the Internet. The only way you’re going to get your message out, particularly to young people, is to go where young people are congregating on the Internet, whether that’s Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. If you just use all the traditional tools available to the White House, you’ll just be speaking primarily to people over the age of forty.
Gate: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings predicts that in fifteen years, we’ll see broadcast television as antiquated and that fewer and fewer Americans will own a television set. Do you foresee a future where politicians no longer give interviews on shows like CNN or NBC because that’s not where their audience is?
Pfeiffer: No—I think Reed, who is a very smart guy, is right in that the model of broadcast television, paid for by advertisements and subscription fees, is going to be dead sooner rather than later. Companies like NBC and CNN and the New York Times and others will adapt to the digital world. They will just be digital media companies, not television or newspaper companies. They will go the multimedia route because that’s how people consume information.
Gate: The president has done The Colbert Report, he’s done Buzzfeed, he’s done Between Two Ferns. What has he enjoyed most?
Pfeiffer: Between Two Ferns. He sits with his family at dinner every night and they ask him what he does each day. As they’ve gotten older, they care less about what he says. But when he told Malia and Sasha that he had gone on Between Two Ferns, the daughters took notice. A lot of that show was improvised too. When the president went off on Zach Galifianakis for not being as good-looking as Bradley Cooper, that was all improvisation by the president. He was really proud of it.
Gate: How has President Obama’s off-the-cuff media strategy shaped expectations for the next president, especially when the front runners of both parties are not known for being technologically savvy?
Pfeiffer: Everything that we’ve had to do, the next president is going to have to do more of. We’ve had an advantage because the president is very good in these kinds of environments. The president is natural, funny, and comes off as authentic—he can just be himself. For politicians who are less adept at that, it will be harder. You’re either going to adapt or perish in this world. We have designed a strategy that works to Barack Obama’s strengths. A digital Internet strategy for Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio will only work if it’s authentic for them. They will have to find the mediums where they can show who they are; even if it is a little less funny or less hip, it can be authentic too.
Gate: Hillary Clinton’s campaign has chosen to bypass many traditional media outlets in getting out the campaign’s message, and she has been criticized for not taking more questions from reporters. What do you think of that strategy?
Pfeiffer: I just got into a big fight on Twitter this morning about this. In a campaign, you want to run your strategy and not let the press dictate your strategy. She’s going to formally kick off her campaign in a few weeks with a big speech. It is wise for her not to take press questions every day in the run-up to the speech. There are legitimate questions she’s going to have to answer and if in the weeks and months ahead she’s not engaging with the press, that’s going to be a problem, because it will speak to caricatures of her. I’ve worked with the people on her campaign and they’re some of the most press savvy people in politics. They will figure this out. She’s doing the right thing right now but she can’t do it forever.
Gate: How do you see the role of the press secretary and the relationship between the press and the White House changing in this media landscape?
Pfeiffer: The relationship has always been tense. Many in the press are facing an existential crisis as media organizations are figuring out how to make money in this day and age. At places like the New York Times there are buyouts of very accomplished reporters on a regular basis and that is alarming. There will always be a forum where the White House takes questions from media representatives on a regular, if not daily, basis. Whether that will always be the White House press secretary walking into the briefing room to take questions from that group of people remains to be seen. Whoever makes up the media contingent in that day and age will have the capacity to ask questions. The Internet does provide opportunities for regular people or citizen journalists or bloggers to engage in that process in a way that was not possible a few years ago.
Gate: How do you think the president’s media strategy has helped shaped his legacy?
Pfeiffer: Among his many accomplishments, I think he’ll be known as the first president of the digital and social media age. He’ll be seen as having set the standard for how you do that, and he’s put in place precedents and traditions that future presidents will follow. The Internet has allowed the president a chance to show a side of himself that he wouldn’t have had the chance to show through the news. He was able to show that he’s a normal guy who cares about his family and watches sports, Game of Thrones, and The Wire. The press puts you in a box and you can break out of that box with social media.
Gate: What motivated the president to get a Twitter account?
Pfeiffer: I don’t know how much he’s reading Twitter—he’s more tweeting than reading. The campaign had @BarackObama. The White House had @White House, the third largest Twitter presence behind Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, in terms of followers. We eventually decided that @WhiteHouse was too institutional. We did signed tweets but no one really cared about them. We didn’t have enough content to do it right, and you have to have an engagement strategy. The President took questions on Twitter on Friday and that was good. You can’t just tweet out your press releases. Twitter is where a lot of the political narrative is shaped.
This interview has been edited and condensed.