Obama’s way around mainstream media

She was trying to make sure media (literally) used the “right” image of Barack Obama during the campaign. Jodi Williams was one of the many young brains behind Barack Obama’s media campaign.

Jodi Williams, who was part of Barack Obama's press team in the presidental campaign. (Photo: Bente Kalsnes)

I met her at the Digital News Affairs conference in Brussels to talk about the digital changes in campaigning and dealing with the media. She had no doubt that all the new digital tools made it easier for political candidates to communicate independently from mainstream media, on their own platforms.

– Absolutly. Even though mainstream media always will be important, the digital tools have given politicans fantastic opportunities to communicate directly with people. It will give a huge boom to any campaign. If Obama wants, he can address the nation every night as long as people are interested, says Williams.

One of the important differences is how easy and cost-efficient it has become to distribute campaign materials, unlike in the past, when candidates had spend fortunes on tv commercials, to use for example direct mail or hope the New York Times used a picture that made the him or her look pretty.The Obama campaign’s Flickr images from election night have already become legendary.

– When you see these images, you understand much more, you see that even a presidental candidate has to tie his shoe laces. That makes the candidate seem much more human, says Williams.

-In the past, candidates have been able to talk to people through the radio. Now, Obama was able to talk through images.

She is now working in the private sector for a company called Premier Digital Services, but before joining Obama’s team in 2007, she was also part of John Kerry and Howard Dean’s teams.

– I was present when Howard Dean did the famous “Dean Scream”. It wasn’t nearly as damaging in person as on tv. When I came back to my hotel room that night and saw this horrible soundbite on tv, I got surprised. There was so much energy in that room, so Dean’s outburst wasn’t that out of place. But the soundbite brought it out of proportions, says Williams.

She also mentions how the spread of George Allen’s 2006 racial slur on YouTube eventually took down his campaign. The digital tools are powerful, and can easily build up or break down a candidate.

As we’ve already read about, lots of bloggers followed the 2008 presidental campaign, and after Obama entered the White Office, a Huffington Post reporter made history when he became the first member of an Internet-based news organization to be called upon during an official White House press conference.

– Some bloggers, like Ben Smith from Politico, followed us almost full-time. And on all the stops we did, there were lots of bloggers who approached us. We had some safety concerns, because how can you decide who are credible or not? We only had one incident when we had to remove one blogger. But generally, they were asking really interesting questions, says Williams, and adds that a mainstream media reporter such as Brian Williams from NBC understood that he became less relevant in competition with all the bloggers.

During the DNA conference Williams got asked about mistakes done during the Obama campaign, which has been called “the perfect campaign” by many.

“The roll-out of the vice president announcement via SMS could have gone much smoother” is all she will say about that.

-Internet gave Barack Obama a fantastic opportunity to communicate directly to people.But the next five-ten years will be bumpy, and it will take time before we reach true participatory democracy, says Williams.


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