Social Media

Key Insights from the White House Director of Digital Strategy, Robert Flaherty

An inside look at how the White House is thinking about digital strategy.

During a recent Digital.gov event, White House Director of Digital Strategy Rob Flaherty answered questions from moderator Laura Larrimore, Senior Digital Strategist at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and the audience, on how the White House team effectively uses digital tools and social media to communicate with the public. Here are the key takeaways and insights from their conversation during the event, Digital Strategy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

Create Relevant and Unique Content

Over the last six months, the White House Digital Strategy team’s most popular content has been related to COVID-19 and vaccine availability, as well as identity-based initiatives (such as Pride Month, Juneteenth, and Chinese New Year). They want their diverse audience to feel represented and acknowledged. For instance, the team has been working on projects that highlight real-life stories of citizens all over the country. Flaherty advises that it’s important to strike a balance between serious topics and lighthearted content in your messaging.

Another content-related tip is that it’s impossible to compete with established channels, such as television news, because they have more technology and resources. Instead of repeating content from those channels, the White House team focuses on content that is unique to the White House, like behind-the-scenes footage of the president. They want their content to feel exclusive. So, in thinking about you and your organization, what types of content are totally unique to you?

Prioritize Audience Reach

Once you decide on target audiences, how will you reach them? Flaherty says that the administration believes in reflecting the country that elected it and reaching a broad range of people. His team considers two approaches: 1) how to expand their audience, and 2) how to reach people who normally might not follow their channels.

One technique they use is partnering with influencers and creators to reach certain communities. For example, with the child tax credit, the team needed to reach more Spanish-speakers. Their solution was to contact Spanish-speaking influencers and other popular figures in the Latino community.

A challenge of reaching a large audience, however, is receiving a lot of noise across several channels. How does one sort through and manage that? The White House team looks at the volume of comments to figure out what themes they want to prioritize. They pay attention to which topics are driving the most engagement, which helps them curate their responses.

Keep Videos Short or Long

Since the current White House Digital Strategy team has been in office, they’ve noticed a shift in their audience’s video preferences. The videos that are catching viewers’ attention at this moment are either long or short, nothing in the middle. Short-form, or 1- to 2-minute videos, have become extremely popular over the past 6 months. Long-form videos, which span about 5 or 6 minutes, captivate audiences as long as they have interesting storylines. Another thing the White House team has learned is that when using some social media platforms, pre-recorded videos are less popular than text posts and live video.

Communicate Your Comms Work

To get buy-in and build excitement over your digital communications work, it’s important to develop strong relationships with internal stakeholders and share your strategy with your organization’s leadership. The White House Digital Strategy team does a monthly presentation to their senior leadership team, emphasizing metrics and goals. They specifically focus their metrics on reach, which includes total number of users, specific audiences, and video views. They use customer experience software tools to generate these metrics.

The White House team also recommends daily communication to leadership and your internal team. For instance, they send an “outbound checkout” email to senior leadership at the end of each day, which explains what to expect from the team the following day. They also send an internal “look ahead” email, which outlines the content that will be posted and at what time. Flaherty asserts that the combination of a robust metrics software, along with regular updates to internal and external parties, keeps stakeholders informed and the team on track.

Final Takeaways

The White House Office of Digital Strategy plays a critical role in the administration’s engagement with the public. They connect the White House to the people, doing so in ways that are transparent and innovative. Their work requires thoughtful messaging, creative content, and extensive outreach efforts. Those of us who do social media and communications in other organizations can learn a lot from the unique experiences of Director Flaherty and his team.