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Digitizing Politics: Talking with a Social Media Innovator for the White House and State Department [Podcast]

February 12, 2016

Remember when the online talk show "Between Two Ferns" scored a visit to the White House? Host Zach Galifianakis chatted with President Obama about health care, among other things. The episode went viral, of course.

It's the type of social media effort Macon Phillips applauds. In 2008, Phillips was the Obama campaign's digital guru. Once Obama won the election, Phillips became the man behind many of the digital innovations at the White House ( and for example).

Recently, Phillips talked with Dean of the Sanford School Kelly Brownell. Phillips is now using his digital talents with the State Department to revamp America's "digital diplomacy."


Brownell: The Obama campaign was known for engaging citizens. How did you go about doing that?

Phillips: The campaign focused on three core functions: how we could communicate, how we could raise money, and how we could contact voters and make sure they turn out to vote. And technology had a profound impact in all three of those functions, and continues to drive a lot of change.

Obviously in communications, it was social media as a way of putting out content, it was the pace of how stories moved, it was the very nature of the content itself in that people could create their own videos, their own arguments, and I think we found an exciting opportunity in really curating and facilitating and encouraging that kind of grassroots content development.

When it came to fundraising, a lot's been written about just the incredible impact that small dollar donations have on campaigns. I think we're already seeing that again in the current primary season. So, being able to bring in a whole new source of revenue, but more than the actual dollars, actually have a lot of people have that kind of relationship with the campaign and feel like they can contribute what they could, that certainly had a profound impact.

And finally, in terms of the field, I think that's really where the unsung heroes work, in terms of integrating data and field and making sure that the campaign maximized the value every dollar contributed, and the time of every volunteer spent on the areas that mattered for the campaign's overall outcome, which was getting more votes than the other campaign. ...

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I think one of the most gratifying parts about my experience has been seeing that work continue and be built upon, not just by Democratic campaigns, but overall in the political space, because getting more people involved in the process can't be a bad thing.

Brownell: What do you mean by "integrating data and field"?

Phillips: I think that there's a tendency to think about the innovation of Barack Obama the politician as someone who used social media effectively in ways that had never been done before. But it's important to look at Barack Obama the person, and what his original experiences were in politics which was working on the South Side of Chicago, walking around neighborhoods, knocking on doors.

And if you talk to anyone who knows anything about presidential politics, they'll tell you that boots on the ground, walking around neighborhoods, knocking on doors, is an incredibly essential part of campaigning.

So I think it's unfair to segregate digital from the rest of the campaign as "this other way that we did the work."

Really, where data and digital had a profound impact was looking at all the signals were coming in, through polling or other sources, and helping direct the resources, whether that's for ads, or whether that's for volunteers who were out canvassing neighborhoods, into the areas that really matter.

And that's not something that's measured publicly, but it's certainly something that has a measured impact on the enterprise of the campaign itself.

Brownell: You mentioned grassroots content development. Can you give me an example of what you mean by that?

Phillips: If you just look in the political space right now, there's this explosion of memes and videos and ways people are talking about why they support certain candidates that the campaigns have no role in creating. To some extent they can embrace it.

HIllary Clinton memeYou may remember the Hillary phone call image, from a while back, of her on a plane, on a cell phone, and how that started a conversation about who she was and the kind of leader she was and eventually -- she actually -- her people stepped in to that and engaged on it. But for a long time that was something that was very organic, but still very powerful, and aligned with her interests.

And you're seeing that for basically every candidate out there, some level of it.

For Obama that's always been something that we've enjoyed; that people have responded to what he's doing because they share his interests and they want to talk about that.

And we also have deliberately engaged in that (both on the campaign and also at the White House) by inviting content creators into the White House, whether they are popular people on YouTube, who are creating videos to talk about the President's policies after the State of the Union, or whether they are popular people on Instagram to walk around the White House and take photos of it.

At the end of the day, you can really get your message across, often more effectively by identifying the best messengers and just giving them the information.

Brownell: So you can see cases where people are attempting to be helpful, but create content that turns out not to be. How do you respond to that?

Phillips: I think it's default open, it's default "the more participation, the better."

The bigger question is this illusion you can actually control what people are putting out. The biggest shift for me from a communications standpoint has been from the centralized model of the nightly newscast and the front page of the newspaper really defining the news of the day, and the White House's press operation being orientated around influencing those few moments, to one of constant dialogue where you are no longer able to control or affect people who control that, and you are really participating in an ongoing conversation.

So in that sense you just do the best you can to make sure that the people who share your interest are as informed as they can be, and then you accept a little bit of flex in terms of how they are going to present the content.

When we're talking about things like talking to young people about health care insurance, bringing Zach Galifianakis into the White House, which happened just after I left the White House, was a great example of content being created that you would never see the White House on its own choose to do. But it ended up being a terribly funny and effective piece of content because of his sensibility and ultimately really effective at reaching the target audience the White House wanted to reach.

Brownell: You were very involved in creating something quite innovative at the White House: We the People. 16 million users have signed over 400,000 petitions. Where did the idea come from and how did it get developed?

Phillips: For the White House it was really important that if a lot of people cared about an issue, there was an efficient way for us to engage on that issue.

And as someone who worked in political organizing and advocacy during the Bush administration, on the outside, I ran a lot of petition campaigns. I even took petitions to the White House and gave them to the secret service officer, where it was pretty clear where those petitions were going, and that didn't feel like a real valid interaction.


The basic way the system works is: anyone can create a petition. The only rule is it has to be on a possible federal government action. If the petition creates enough signatures, the federal government has to respond.


I think today, in a day where you're seeing people more polarized, you're not seeing as much debate and dialogue between people who disagree with one another, for there to be a petition about gun control and the President to say, "Here's the way I think we should address this issue," for us to get past the simplification of "the president wants to take away my guns" or whatever, and actually move the ball forward on this issue, I think this is really meaningful and that's probably why I'm most proud of the petitions platform.

Brownell: Anything surprise you?

Phillips: For sure. One is the rate of international adoption. Anyone can create a petition. ... Oftentimes they say this just happened, the U.S. should weigh in on this. Or this election just happened, the State Department should speak out. As someone who's been at the State Department for two years, I now realize just how profound that kind of citizen engagement is in some countries.  ... So that's one area of exciting promise.

Darth VaderThe other is, of course, people being clever and funny with it.

One of the petitions that the system is best known for is that the U.S. government should build a [Star Wars-like] Death Star ... which we answered and said that would be a real waste of taxpayer money to build a giant fortress that could be destroyed by a single star fighter with one shot.

But we were also able to pivot into all the ways the Department of Defense and NASA is investing in space research. [See the petition response here.]

... We referred to a program deep in NASA called Spot the Station. You can sign up [for the service] and at night when the space station's above you, you can take your kids out and see the space station blinking in the sky. It will send you a text message based on where you tell it you live.

A few days after we sent that petition out we had 10,000 signups. And so I like to think that there are families looking at the space station because at some point dad signed a Death Star petition, and I'll take that.

Browse more episodes of Policy 360.

Explore Sanford's other podcasts, Ways & Means and On Security.

Macon Phillips' visit to Duke was sponsored by POLIS: The Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service.