White House Turns to Nontraditional Media to Get Messages Out

Wednesday, 07 May 2014 11:22 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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President Barack Obama and his staff spent hours on Tuesday courting some of the nation's top weather forecasters with a Roosevelt Room briefing on a new report on climate change in an effort to break through an increasingly polarized media that has Americans reading and viewing news that matches their own political beliefs.

The briefing included multiple Cabinet secretaries, Rose Garden interviews with Obama, and reports from senior officials, The Washington Post reports, and as the issue of climate change is a divisive matter between Democrats and Republicans, Americans trust meteorologists to give an accurate forecast.

"With presidential communication, it can either preach to the choir or convert the flock," said Harvard global communications professor Matthew Baum. Changes in media and technological strategy "basically mean it’ll be easier than ever before to preach to the choir and get harder and harder to convert the flock."

Tuesday's meeting of the weather minds wasn't the first time for the Obama administration to court alternative ways of getting its message out. Obama appeared on the Internet show "Between Two Ferns" with comedian Zach Galifianakis, and has granted interviews to websites that are not political powerhouses, such as to WebMD for Obamacare news.

"In every year, this project gets harder, the media gets more disaggregated, people get more options to choose from, and they self-select outlets that speak to their preconceived notions," Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser and longtime communications strategist, told The Post.

Americans trust their weather forecasters, though, according to surveys. A Yale and George Mason University poll in 2012 showed that more than half of those responding either strongly or somewhat strongly trusted meteorologists when it comes to getting information about climate change, but only 51 percent trusted Obama, and 37 percent trusted mainstream media.

"They can help viewers connect the dots between what they have heard about climate change, and what they have personally experienced in their own lives," said Edward Maibach, a George Mason University communications professor who helped conduct the survey.

One of the biggest challenges for the White House and other political leaders in the future will be grappling with algorithms on search engines and social networks that use a person’s online history and habits to shape results.

"What all these things are doing is narrowing the range of options that you’re going to be exposed to," Baum said.

Pfeifer said the White House has only a few tools to get its message out, and while it is not passing up traditional media, it's more important than ever to stretch to nontraditional sources, including late-night and daytime shows, ESPN, and other outlets.

"It used to be that Ronald Reagan or, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton could give a national address," he said. "We don’t have that option. We have to go where the public is."

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