What the White House has to say about selling social media

President Obamas virtual town hall gave organizers, including office on new media director Macon Phillips, an ulcer because the highest-ranked question was on legalizing marijuana.

President Obama's virtual town hall gave organizers, including office on new media director Macon Phillips, "an ulcer" because the highest-ranked question was on legalizing marijuana.

This week I was fortunate enough to ask Macon Phillips, the director of the office of new media at the White House, how he is able to hurdle government bureaucracy and create some of the Web’s most innovative uses of social media for President Obama. We all know that the Obama campaign and now administration has set the standard for political engagement on social networks. I’m sure books will be written about just that.

Phillips talked unassumingly about how the White House is using new technology to reach larger audiences, get their feedback, and sort the feedback into manageable bites that then reach the ears of the most powerful man on earth. Phillips also talked about one of the toughest moments for his office, when President Obama responded to questions submitted and voted on by online communities for an Online Town Hall. The conference made headlines when the top-rated question had to do with legalization of marijuana. The President made light of the question asking what that said about online communities. Phillips said the experience gave him a very rough few days in the White House, not to mention an ulcer.

I was glad Macon Phillips took my question (and follow-up) and even happier with his great answer. "Never start a sentence with Twitter" when proposing a new social media strategy to your boss, he said.

I was glad Macon Phillips took my question (and follow-up) and even happier with his great answer. "Never start a sentence with Twitter" when proposing a new social media strategy to your boss, he said.

What I most wanted to hear, though, was how Phillips sells these cutting-edge ideas internally. Social media is all about trial and error. And when you fail in social media, you do so very publicly (case in point: The question about weed).

Philips said the key was not to frame the conversation in terms of the tools. “Never start the sentence with ‘Twitter,'” he said. He said he convinces the President’s office of the importance of engaging in social media by emphasizing the potential impact. “Wouldn’t it be cool to get thousands of people to watch the President talk about health care and then give him a way to answer their questions in real time?” Is more effective than confusing social media skeptics with lots of technical jargon about the tools that will be used.

He couldn’t have given better advise to the audience. Phillips was speaking to 125 non-profit professionals who work in Washington, DC at the Oct. 22 White House Networking Reception. While non-profits are often touted as the industry most on the edge of social networking, we are far from immune from the knee-jerk responses to innovation. Especially in a year that has cut back so many non-profit budgets, it can be hard to justify spending valuable staff resources on tweets. Social media can feel intangible, abstract and unimportant.

But it’s not.

More and more, we’re seeing that the organizations that embrace social media, are the ones that survive–and flourish. Phillips is at the cutting edge, and we would all do well to follow his example.

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