When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, it was a landmark for many reasons, most notably that he became the first African-American to hold the highest office in the nation. But Obama’s 2008 campaign was also the first of its kind to use connect constituents with the candidate via digital channels. Obama recognised the value of this discipline, and so the White House’s first ever digital team was born.
Speaking at Spikes Asia 2016, Ashleigh Axios, Creative Director and Digital Strategist at the White House, offered her insights and advice on how to drive a national conversation and engage people in policy, in the year of what is shaping up to be the most incendiary presidential election to date.
Don’t be afraid to get personal.
“It’s tempting, somewhere like the White House, to be really institutional and serious,” says Axios. “But it’s important to let personality shine through and not be phony. “ Creating comms for the White House isn’t just about Obama’s messaging, she says, but also about the people on his staff. Like in June 2015, when they decided to light up the White House and its digital channels in the colours of the rainbow flag, in celebration of the SCOTUS decision to legalise same-sex marriage; the White House, including everybody who worked there, were able to show their support for an oft-underrepresented community.
In fact, steering away from professional polish can be an asset, says Axios, as it makes you more flexible and responsive when things inevitably don’t go to plan. “Things can go wrong, mistakes can happen; you can’t be scared of the idea.” She cites the example of Obama’s speech at a recent correspondent’s dinner; the slides failed to play, and so half of his jokes fell flat. The team ended up sharing the slides on social instead, and so the message ended up travelling further than originally planned.
Ideas should belong to everybody.
“Retain talent, don’t churn it,” advises Axios, adding: “Check your egos.” She believes that the best ideas happen when everybody is empowered to collaborate and offer their own perspectives. “Diversity breeds innovation,” she says.
Never stop pushing the boundaries of what you can do.
“A real goal is something that stretches you and is hard to achieve. If it’s easy to achieve, it’s just a task,” says Axios. A prime example of this is the annual State of the Union address. Historically this has been something of a closed event, but advances in technology and a keener interest in transparency have brought it into the national conversation.
“It’s all about connecting people with purpose, and using technology to engage communities,” says Axios. Each year, a team of just seven people spends the week ahead of the State of the Union frantically preparing — and each year, their plans get more ambitious. “We want to push the envelope each year,” she says, describing the “river of content” including polls, email sign-ups, and shareable content which enable people to engage with the speech.
Thanks to technology, governments are expected to be more transparent than ever before, to be held accountable, and to make policy accessible to all. “I want to see this kind of innovation happening in companies right now, and in governments across the globe,” says Axios.