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STRATEGY

Social Media Lessons From the White House

The White House brand is comprised of far more than glossy photos of smiling officials. Here's how democracy is spread, social media style.

Sarah Bernard, deputy director for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House, spoke at National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C.

Inc.

Sarah Bernard, deputy director for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House, spoke at National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C.

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It's no longer a question of whether social media is worth your time, but what form of social media is most worth your time. At least that's the message that came across at the social media forum at National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C.

"Social media is good news to small business," says Karen Mills, administrator of the Small Business Administration. "It levels the playing field." But there's more to the White House brand than, say, distributing pictures of a smiling president.

Sarah Bernard oversees social media efforts for the White House. As the deputy director for the Office of Digital Strategy, Bernard is a voice of authority on the ever-changing ecosystem. "The White House loves social media," she says.

But the White House digital team doesn't waste time picking favorites; instead, it hones in on making its message hit the right targets. Bernard's advice for making a social-media strategy for your business: "Don't program around the tools--they're always changing. Focus on your objectives."

Want that success, recognition, and credibility? Here's how to emulate the social media success of the White House:

Make modern updates to the classics.

The Fireside Chats made famous by former president Franklin D. Roosevelt were tremendous in reach, but, they're so 1933. Though President Obama does have a weekly radio address, the White House team has given his outreach efforts a 2012 update. In fact, the President had his first Google Plus "Hangout" in January, where he answered live questions via group video chat. President Obama has also chimed into to answer questions on Facebook and Twitter during town halls. Think: "What are you doing now that could be updated?" Bernard asks. According to the deputy director, just about any existing model of engagement can be updated, scaled, or made more efficient by social media. The White House team always keeps the brand at the forefront of their minds, but Bernard encourages trying something new. "There is always some room to experiment, and social media gives us that chance."

Don't just inform. Focus on engagement.

The White House doesn't just use social media as a way to inform the public, but to engage with them as well—meaningfully.  Bernard encourages keeping the participation bar low so that it's easy for people to join in on the discussion. But just because it's via social media doesn't mean the conversation has to be lighthearted or limited to small talk. In fact, when the debate over pay roll tax was going on in December, Bernard utilized social media to gain public opinions on the matter. The team takes in the feedback, and responds. "Could you have more meaningful engagement via social media? I would say yes." Bernard says. "I would think about what your objectives are and keep the participation bar as low as possible and feel free to experiment. "

Think about the bigger, longer term, picture.

"We are very cognisant of the White House brand," Bernard says. Notice she said "the White House brand," not "the Obama brand." Yes, Barack Obama is the current president, and many of the social media efforts reflect that. However, change will come, both in the White House and in your company, so know your brand and build the brand. Don't solely focus on the person at the top. Bernard also aims to be transparent, both through honest messages and asset distribution, such as the White House's active photostream on Flickr. According to Bernard, the digital strategy team works to open up the White House to the public, enabling citizens to peer into what's going on behind the scenes and also to engage with the White House and provide feedback.

Broadcast the basics, but really amplify the big, broad ideas.

A top priority at the White House is to amplify what the president is saying and doing, as well as inform the public about ever-changing policies across the U.S. "We're always trying to raise awareness," Bernard says. Back in December there was a big debate going on about payroll tax. Social media platforms were utilized as a way to keep the public informed. "Social media allows us to engage with the American people," she says.

Last updated: May 25, 2012

CAITLIN BERENS writes about business innovation and entrepreneurs. Before Inc., she worked at Billboard, SELF, and Better Homes and Gardens. She attended Drake University, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
@CaitlinBerens




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