Chris Daniels
Nov 15, 2020

A return to the Obama comms playbook? Not exactly

The Biden administration will be night and day from the Trump White House, but also distinct from the last Democratic president.

A return to the Obama comms playbook?  Not exactly

He has wielded Twitter to announce unexpected policy and White House staffing changes, and to share his unfiltered thoughts on the Academy Awards and companies such as AmazonFord and Nordstrom. And he has positioned himself as a primary spokesperson and expert on complex issues such as COVID-19, even overshadowing Dr. Anthony Fauci as the infectious disease specialist’s popularity grew.

But now the curtain is drawing to a close on President Donald Trump’s time in office, and experts are pondering how President-elect Joe Biden will communicate with the public once he is sworn in on January 20, 2021.

What can we expect from a Biden administration? Political PR pros point to the campaign he ran to defeat the Republican incumbent to become the 46th president.

“Every new administration’s communications strategy evolves from the campaign that put it into office, in its strategy, tactics and personnel,” says Chuck Alston, SVP, corporate reputation, at MSL U.S. and former executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council. “To be sure, you’ll see greater respect for the mainstream press and certainly a more civil White House briefing room...We anticipate a multichannel, integrated strategy that will not rely on presidential whim for its direction nor its messaging.”

But don’t expect a complete return to former President Barack Obama’s playbook, which saw him become the first sitting president to appear on a late-night talk show as a guest, shortly after his first inauguration in 2009, on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Obama would make other appearances on “Ellen” and “The Daily Show.”

“The Biden-Harris campaign did not put media availability at the center of its campaign comms strategy,” points out Alston, “so we shouldn’t expect the administration to do so.”

Expect a break from the celebrity politics of the last two presidents, say other experts, who predict Biden will revert to more traditional methods of communicating with the public.

“He is going to have a much more paternal approach to communicating than we have seen from the last two presidents,” says pollster Lee Carter, president of Maslansky + Partners. “Obama was a rising rock star, an orator and really the center of attention in his administration, and Trump was a reality TV star who went to disrupt Washington, DC. They had more of a celebrity approach.”

“[Biden’s] focus will be about trying to take the temperature down and, as we’ve seen from the last few speeches he has given, make us feel like things are going to be better,” Carter adds. “He is also much more comfortable having other people in the spotlight, so he will rely on experts and will be comfortable in having [Vice President-elect] Kamala Harris take on an outsized role.”

Don’t expert Biden to try to match Trump in tone, but there are some things the 46th president can learn from his predecessor about cutting through the media clutter. During his victory speech on Saturday, the former senator and vice president told the audience, “This is the time to heal in America.” However, if Biden’s platform is to bring together a divided nation, he is going to have to evolve his comms strategy, PR pros point out.

“As much as we might hate Trump’s tweets and his brash stream-of-conscious communication, he has the ability to cut through bureaucracy and talk directly to the people. I think Biden is going to have to find a way to do that, too,” explains Carter. “People have gotten used to a regular cadence of communication from the president. A 2 p.m. press briefing every day and a roundtable of experts aren’t going to keep everyone in the know.” 

However, he adds that Biden is unlikely to match Trump’s taste in social media and will have to communicate unconventionally in other ways, such as appearing on unfriendly networks to convince skeptics of his intentions.

“If you look at [Biden’s] Twitter feed, you think, ‘Did he write this or someone else?’” notes Carter. “He’ll also have to appear on Fox News or some of these other emerging channels to really break through and resonate, if he is to make a majority believe in this idea of unity.”

Indeed, the perceived division between Democrats and Republicans cuts deep. According to an October poll from Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm, 78% of Democrats say that the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. On the flip side, 81% of Republicans say the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists.

John Files, EVP at Powell Tate, agrees that during the campaign, the now-president-elect “lagged President Trump in social media performance across platforms including Twitter, where Trump sought to agitate his critics and activate his base. Biden seems less personally invested in social media and less interested in using the internet as the tip of his communications spear.”

“He has demonstrated a more traditional approach to media and communications, shaped by his deep regard for the value media plays in supporting civil discourse in American democracy,” he adds.

However, Files sees pluses in that approach for Biden.

“To be sure, that doesn’t mean he’ll enjoy all the coverage or that he’ll be shy about pushing back and seeking to influence it. The net effect will likely be less harsh online rhetoric and more even-handed engagement with media from the Biden administration,” he says.

Tom Cochran, a partner at 720 Strategies who spent more than four years in the Obama administration, also sees a return to more traditional methods from Biden, but with “a continuation of the newer digital ways.” 

“The Biden administration isn't the Obama administration, and nor should it be,” he explains. “It should build on the good done by previous administrations to effectively communicate directly with all Americans, not just a political base.”

Announcing news via social media like Trump does isn’t “inherently bad or unprofessional,” notes Cochran. “The Trump administration's message, tone and vitriolic attacks were the problem.”

“We should all want to live in a country where communications from the White House are official, presidential and not riddled with typos, ALL-CAPS or expletives,” he adds. “The Biden administration will bring the requisite decorum back to communications, regardless of the channel.”


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