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Obama Tries To Spread State Of The Union Messages Outside Speech


Tens of millions of people will watch President Obama's State of the Union address tonight. It's an enormous audience, but it's far fewer than watch the Super Bowl, and it'll likely be far fewer than watch the State of the Union just a few years ago. So in order to make sure that his message resonates this year, the president has traveled far and wide, literally and virtually.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us now from New York City. And, David, usually White Houses hold the message of the speech pretty close to the vest, but this time Mr. Obama has done a great deal foreshadowing.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: He sure has. I mean, before we think about the words of his speech, it's worth thinking about a few numbers. TV audience estimates, if you think back five years ago to 2010, Mr. Obama got 48 million people to watch him on television conventional channels, and that just dropped. Last year, it was just 33 million - a little bit over that. So it's, you know, dropped by about a third in just a few short years. He's gone out in the last 10 days, two weeks, to Tennessee, Iowa and Maryland.

He's been promoting the community college and broadband policy initiatives he's going to likely sketch out in tonight's speech. And he, you know, what does he do? He gets some local coverage. He gets some new settings for where he does it, and he also gets to try to wrest - control the policy discussion ahead of time from the Republicans, who have just taken control of both houses of Congress with pretty sizable margins.

SIEGEL: Of course, watching the speech on TV or, for that matter, listening to it on the radio are not the only ways to follow it. Help us understand how the White House is approaching this differently this year.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's this fascinating essay on the digital publisher called Medium by a senior White House advisor, Dan Pfeiffer, and he said that the White House thinks about the audience with four baskets of viewers, right? There are conventional TV people who tune in on TV. There are those who watch with TV plus watching with a second screen that could be a tablet or a PC or smartphone - using other social media outlets or other media to follow in real time. There are folks who are just digital only.

They might stream it, and the White House has been really pumping it whitehouse.gov, where they've got all kinds of supplementary facts and figures and graphics planned to make available to those watching while streaming. And then there are those who aren't watching at all. And the White House wants to create enough snackable, viral, sharable elements that people are going to feel compelled to post on their social media platform accounts. And in that way the White House is thinking not just like a political operation, or not just like a network, but like a sports league, like the NFL. They want people to consume it everywhere.

SIEGEL: And are the Republicans doing their own social media outreach, not to be outdone by the Democrats?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'm sure there are. There are a couple that have struck our eye recently. John Boehner's staff sent out a series of gifs - those quick, movable videos - using Taylor Swift eye rolls to mock various proposals by the president. And there's said to be a live online response in Spanish, as well as the conventional one in English, by a Latino Republican lawmaker. Although, there was a mini flap online when it turned out he'd essentially be repeating the English remarks of the new Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa.

SIEGEL: Now, President Obama has more plans for something online after the State of the Union. What's he up to?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he wants to capture various elements of this increasingly fragmented audience, right? So among the things he's doing will involve conversations with three YouTube stars. One of them's named GloZell Green. She earned online fame for essentially stuffing her mouth with cinnamon and suffering the consequences. They can be pretty sharp. That video alone got 42 million hits. That's more than we expect the president himself to get through the various channels on TV.

It's a little bit - if you think back to Obama's appearance on "Between Two Ferns" with the comedian Zach Galifianakis, who played a snarky and clueless interviewer. The administration claimed it got a Galifianakis bump from younger enrollees to Obamacare. And this is a way in which Obama and the White House is trying not to really go around the MSM but to - the mainstream media that is - but to supplement those audiences. He does a fair number of interviews with news anchors and senior correspondents, but he's seeing the fragmentation of the audiences and reaching out to them in both the language and the conduits they understand. And again it's worth thinking about the White House more as acting like the NFL than POTUS, trying to get different audiences on different layers of platforms all at the same time.

SIEGEL: POTUS - newspeak for President of the United States. That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.