How the White House approaches the internet
White House Director of Digital Strategy Rob Flaherty breaks down what his team has learned over the past year
Unlike his predecessor, Joe Biden doesn’t write his own tweets. That doesn’t mean, however, that his team is relying on the internet any less. Over the past year, we’ve watched the White House digital team carve out their own unique approach to engaging Americans online, whether it be through influencer outreach or their own content on official channels. For this week’s FWIW, we spoke with the White House Director of Digital Strategy, Rob Flaherty, about how his team approaches their work and what type of content they’ve seen perform best.
By the numbers
FWIW, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Meta platforms (Facebook + Instagram) last week:
Democratic-affiliated outside groups Priorities USA and Majority Forward have relaunched their advertising partnership for the midterms, running a new wave of Facebook ads last week from the A Better Arizona Facebook page. 🌵 The ads boost Sen. Mark Kelly’s accomplishments in English and Spanish.
Elsewhere on Facebook, PA Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s campaign for U.S. Senate continues to win the internet with their digital strategy, this time running fundraising ads highlighting “Tiger King” Joe Exotic’s support for his potential Republican opponent, Dr. Oz. 😂 Whatever works to get people to stop scrolling!
We found that at least 35 Republican politicians up and down the ballot and half a dozen outside groups have used almost identical language in new Facebook and Instagram ads to attack the Biden administration and parrot fossil fuel industry talking points on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Read more here>>
Meanwhile, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
The opaquely named Protect Our Future PAC was once again a top spender nationwide on Google/YouTube ads last week. The crypto-billionaire backed group is spending the majority of its ad dollars on the platform supporting a guy named Carrick Flynn in a Democratic Primary for a U.S. House seat in Oregon. They’ve topped over $1m in total advertising in the race, which is quite a lot of money this early in the cycle.
Lastly, here are the top political ad spenders on Snapchat so far this year:
We’ve noticed a few more midterm candidates are hopping on the Snapchat train, with Sens. Marco Rubio, Mark Kelly, and Raphael Warnock joining Sen. Maggie Hassan’s campaign to take advantage of advertising on the platform.
Midterm spending takeaways
The midterms are upon us, and we’re keeping a close eye on digital ad spending in key Senate, House, and Gubernatorial contests. For full access to the most comprehensive dataset of midterm digital spending, become a paying subscriber here. >>
Mark Kelly was the top-spending battleground Senate candidate on FB + Google ads last week (view Senate data).
Stacey Abrams was the top spending battleground Gubernatorial candidate on digital ads last week (view Gov data).
OR-06 was the most expensive swing U.S. House district race online last week (view House data).
New from the Campaigner newsletter:
Campaigns often prioritize moving fast and winning at all costs, to the neglect of effective management strategies and staff well-being. For this week’s Campaigner, we dug into this issue with Loren Merchan, an experienced campaign leader and President of Authentic, who is passionate about learning and sharing best practices for campaigns and organizations to implement. Read + subscribe here>>
Q&A with Rob Flaherty, White House Director of Digital Strategy
In contrast to his predecessor, Joe Biden doesn’t write his own tweets. That doesn’t mean, however, that his team is relying on the internet any less. Over the past year, we’ve watched the White House digital team carve out their own unique approach to engaging Americans online, whether it be through influencer outreach or their own content on official channels. We caught up with the White House Director of Digital Strategy, Rob Flaherty, to chat about how his team approaches their work. The below interview was edited for length and clarity:
Kyle Tharp: Thanks so much for taking the time! A lot of us aren’t familiar with the Office of Digital Strategy. Why don’t you start by telling us how your team is structured and what’s everyone’s role?
Rob Flaherty: The Office of Digital Strategy (ODS) has (depending on how you want to define it) somewhere between 19 and 22 people on it. We have three main “workflows:” 1) owned and operated platforms, 2) creators and influencers, and 3) creative production. So we have everything that goes into running the President’s social media platforms, we have everything that has to do with engaging creators ranging from Olivia Rodrigo down to Bill Nye and Dude with Sign, and then we have our video team and design team. Oh, and we also have “digital engagement” too, which is a go-between with public engagement, working with grasstops leadership and organizations.
This is actually the first White House to staff digital creators in a real way. We have two people doing that work right now, and the digital engagement side sort of plugs in there a little bit too. That's an exciting new feature to ODS that hasn't been there in years past.
Kyle Tharp: Strong digital programs often have to balance long-term strategic plans with the need for constantly responding to the news of the day. Whether it’s something happening abroad or action on Capitol Hill, you all have so much on your plate. How does your team focus on daily content needs while staying on top of big goals that you want to accomplish?
Rob Flaherty: You know it's kind of funny. The way we lined up initially was to try to anticipate this. I have two deputies, and the initial goal was that one was going to take “audience,” which is more of the long term, how do we talk to these audiences over time, and the other was going to take comms, which is more of the day to day rapid response stuff. I think that was sort of a naive view. Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the face. (laughs)
It’s just a constant, never-ending churn. If you had one hundred digital dollars for how you spend your time, you could pour all one hundred into rapid response and it would still not even be a drop in the bucket. It’s just a constant adjustment of needing to really pour effort and bandwidth into X thing today, making really hard decisions about what things are important to be out there on, and then looking also at what our long-term goals are.
For us, our long-term goals are really audience-based. We have communities that we know we need to talk to and we want to use digital to talk to them. So, we want to spend a lot of time keeping our eye on that, but we always need to carve a certain percentage of our bandwidth out on the day-to-day churn and things that may come up.
One other thing that is kind of a guide here is that with digital, you have to play to demand as much as anything else. People are really interested in Russia right now, for obvious reasons. We know that is a rapid response situation that people are paying attention to, and we need to spend a lot of our time on it. The Supreme Court nomination is in this bucket of things that we also want to keep a constant drumbeat [of content] out on.
That said, if we got sucked into every single rapid response moment from every crisis, we would never do the things that we need to do. So, we’re weighing a lot of different inputs to try to come up with a daily effort formula.
Kyle Tharp: That makes a lot of sense. I read a quote from the former head of ODS Jason Goldman a while ago, where he said that “the owned and operated channels will consume as many bodies as you can ever throw at it,” which sounds about right.
Rob Flaherty. That's exactly right. You could put a hundred people doing digital at this White House and I, you would still feel stretched. What I liked about Jason's quote and what resonated with me was that “the owned and operated” channels are what really can be all-consuming. Then think about adding the off-platform stuff, which to me is just as, if not more, impactful as the owned platforms. If our department was entirely based on content for White House [owned] platforms, you could just do that all day and have a perfectly great workstream. But you've gotta carve out the room to do the other work.
Kyle Tharp: That “off-platform stuff” is what I'm really interested in talking to you about. I think your team in particular has really understood the value of using other messengers and brands rather than just your own accounts and pages. I’m sure that’s been intentional - why have you gone that route? What have been your biggest successes with that type of influencer or creator engagement?
Totally. We went really big on this back on the Biden campaign. I think by the end of the campaign, I don't remember how many people each team had, but I think there were like 15 people doing digital partnerships. Obviously, we found that to be insanely worthwhile. Then, when you come to the White House, you look at the toolset that we have, which is basically organic social media. That is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that we have probably the biggest megaphone in political social media.
But particularly in the algorithmic space, when you look at Instagram and Facebook, we are in this place where the people who follow us are the people who want to hear from us. There is real value in getting content out to those people who want to hear from us, because they share stuff, they talk to their friends, and all that that is really important.
But if we want to break through and cut through to the people that the President actually needs to talk to, we have to get off of these platforms and out of these algorithmic bubbles, and go find and collect audiences from all around the internet. That is why we spend the time to invest in this stuff: there's so much more value in going out and finding people who have audiences within targeted communities and are who people already trust because they've decided to follow them.
This is kind of a broader theory: You know, talking about the way the media has fractured is cliche and obvious. But this to me is the biggest difference that the internet has driven. The White House building is literally constructed around talking to the press, right? There's a literal room for it. The idea that you get your message out through news is so ingrained in this building's culture, but actually, we've seen in research that people are reading the news less, and are tuning it all out. Some people opt out of the news entirely. In a world with no broadcasts, it's just a collection of narrowcasts. I think we need to be doing as much work on local media as we do on influencers, and thank God for the comms team for sharing this point of view. All of this stuff is important, and I think that's why we’ve made the investments that we have. I’m so glad we’ve got Landon Morgado in here and Aisha Shah who do that digital partnerships work and are making a real difference every day.
Kyle Tharp: Last spring we wrote a whole issue on the impact of your work with Olivia Rodrigo to push back on vaccine misinformation. What other similar partnerships have you really enjoyed over the past year?
Rob Flaherty: Obviously the Olivia Rodrigo content sort of stands on its own. I thought the Dude with Sign thing was really interesting when we did it. We’ve done cool interviews like with The Shade Room, which I think have been interesting opportunities. The President just did a sit down with Heather Cox Richardson. There are so many cool things that have popped up.
Kyle Tharp: Shifting to talk about the platform side of things, I thought it was cool you tried something new recently with Ron Klain’s post-SOTU use of Twitter Spaces. You’re obviously on all the big platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube - but what’s been your experience with less traditional platforms or using new features? What maybe haven’t you tried but would like to in the future? I know you all weren’t on Clubhouse during the two months that it was a thing. (laughs)
Rob Flaherty: Every day was a new “what are we doing on Clubhouse” conversation, and I was like, let's give it like a couple of months to see what happens. (Laughs)
The reality is when you have the issue that we talked about before, which is that even with 20 people, you could drown in the day-to-day, playing around with new platforms requires spending some time. I think we have generally focused pretty cleanly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as our toolkit. We do a little bit on Snapchat. I could write a thesis about YouTube.
But that's where we live. I always break down the platform world into “algorithmic social” and “newsy social.” With the algorithmic social, you're trying to game the algorithm and you're trying to build an audience. With newsy social, you’re like a public information officer trying to get people the latest news. We sort of live in those two modes and then think about platforms under that body.
I think organic YouTube is probably the most important thing in digital that the Democratic infrastructure just does not do well. It's an area of focus that I really care about in the coming year on how we start to nail it there - both in terms of discoverability and trying to jump on news moments.
Instagram Reels has proven to be the best video source for us. Basically, if it's not short and vertical, it just hasn't worked as well. Short and vertical organic is working great, medium-length (video content) is just not working, and longer stuff that's optimized to YouTube is working great. Facebook video is gone, Twitter video only really works if there's news embedded in it or something really interesting or something that kind of moves the drama along a little bit. The way we think about video has really changed since we've gotten in here too. I think you will see us start to play around more and more with shortened, vertical video more generally as we move along.
Kyle Tharp: Going back to what you mentioned as the “fractured media environment,” I was interested in one of your tweets a few months back highlighting Yellowstone vs. Succession viewership to illustrate the bubble that many of us in DC live in. I wanted to hear your thoughts on what's something that folks in our bubble don't understand about the internet or people's consumption habits?
Rob Flaherty: The media environment we are in is a hall of mirrors. You can spend your entire time in a media environment and internet that is completely personalized for you. If you work in Democratic politics, I think to our detriment, you are probably college-educated, and you are probably living in a city on the ACELA corridor. But the internet really is different for every person, and I think the trick that you can back yourself into from a content perspective is thinking that the stuff that you like and see is a universal experience. So then maybe you start to create stuff that resonates for you, but is not actually resonant with people you need to talk to from an objective strategy perspective.
To me, that makes two things really important: One is having an incredibly diverse team. I do not think you can do digital communications without a lot of different people who have a lot of different experiences - age, race, educational attainment. You cannot succeed in a world where you don't have people who are living in different filter bubbles coming together to make content. And two, it also means getting buy-in from leadership to be able to experiment and do stuff that feels a little weird and feels different.
If you asked people who work in politics what they should do with a principal's time, they would probably say a bunch of straight-to-camera videos, or 30-second spots with a narrator. And it turns out that people's lived internet experiences are just really different than that. That’s kind of an expansion of my Yellowstone vs Succession tweet: Objects in the mirror are closer than they may appear.
Kyle Tharp: Anything else you’d like to add?
Rob Flaherty: One of my predecessors said that ODS is a blank canvas - it could be whatever you want it to be. It could be focused on civic tech. In the Trump administration, I think ODS was primarily responsible for web and video, and the tweets were in their own freaking universe. Our emphasis is how do we reach as many people as possible using organic social media. That has meant candidly that we sort of play down the civic tech stuff, and play down whitehouse.gov in a way, because we want to invest in wide-reaching content on social. I'm really proud of the shop that we've built, and what we've been able to accomplish so far. 🇺🇸