brian ries

Meet the Mind Behind Barack Obama’s Online Persona

You’ve most definitely seen it by now. Michelle Obama, wearing a red-and-white checkered dress, stands with her back to the camera. Her arms are wrapped around her husband, the hints of a smile lingering on the edges of his lips. “Four more years,” reads the text, which was posted on the Obama campaign’s social media accounts around 11:15pm on election night‚ just as it became clear the president had won a second term. 

The photo, taken by campaign photographer Scout Tufankjian just a few days into the job, pretty much won the internet: 816,000 retweets, the most likes ever on Facebook; thousands of reblogs on Tumblr. And yet it wasn’t chosen by the president’s press secretary, or even a senior-level operative, but by 31-year-old Laura Olin, a social media strategist who’d been up since 4am. For the first time since the campaign ended, she talked to Tumblr, in partnership with The Daily Beast, about what it’s like being the voice of the President – where millions of people, and a ravenous press, await your every grammatical error.

So how does it actually work, being the voice of the President? Who makes the decisions about what to post?

All of our decisions were made in-house – in Chicago, mostly – so we weren’t getting direct directives from the White House or anything. But we tried as much as possible to have voices for each account, so depending on the message – because we had all these channels – we had an appropriate place to put it. Obviously some stuff was sufficiently huge so that it went everywhere, but as much as possible we tried to tailor the message for the channel and the audience.

It must be daunting.

It was kind of terrifying, actually. My team ran the Barack Obama Twitter handle, which I think was probably most susceptible to really embarrassing and silly mistakes. We didn’t ever really have one, which I still can’t believe we pulled off.

Was it pretty much constant terror?

It was choosing people for the team who not only were creative – and knew their social media shit – but were really kind of fanatical about fact checking and accuracy. It was getting people that understood there had to be serious fear of God before posting anything. It got to be exhausting, but I’m really proud we avoided a really embarrassing “Amercia” situation.

Did you have any close calls?

Not anything too terrible but just embarrassing typos. But not anything as bad as Amercia. Because that’s pretty damn bad.

Do you think Republicans are more tone deaf when it comes to social media than Democrats? 

I think they’re a little more tone deaf generally, but I’m sure there are people that get it. I think one of the great things about our campaign is that they recognized that digital was going to be a huge part of it. They put a lot of trust in my boss, [Obama for America Digital Director] Teddy Goff, and he in turn put a lot of trust in us, that we knew what we were doing, and to follow our gut, they just need to be brave enough to just let people who know their shit do what they do. But I’m perfectly content if they don’t figure that out for a while.

How did you guys decide what voice to speak in? Was it more casual than real life?

One thing I was really proud of was we always tried to be really human, like speak to people like we’d like to be spoken to, and never go into, you know, “speechiness.” We actually had a list of banned words – like, don’t use words that only politicians use in speeches, don’t be a douchebag, stuff like that. 

It was nice to see you guys embrace the GIF on Tumblr. Was that a conscious decision?

We recognized early on that when we put up a GIF or reblogged a GIF it would have a better reach than just a static image. It’s just another way to speak in the terms of the community – and make things more fun. This isn’t rocket science at all, but I think something that we discovered – or tried to implement – was that if you put things in terms that people actually want to share, they will share them. Political campaigns historically haven’t totally gotten it.

Tell me what election night was like for your team.

The digital campaign was divided into people who were responsible for putting out planned content – so, like, find your polling place – and a rapid-response team. We also did targeted posts and tweets encouraging people to stay in line, getting out information where their new polling place was, stuff like that. We actually went through a few dry runs in the weeks before election day to make sure that we had that entire process down.

And how’d the Four More Years photo come about?

We’d all been there since 4am or 6am, we’re exhausted, I refused to believe that we were actually winning, but we started thinking, around 8:30 or 9:00, “What do we do next?” One of my team members remembered an amazing photo of the president and first lady hugging at the president’s last campaign rally in Des Moines. It’s this really beautiful photo at night – the only thing was that Michelle was facing forward and the president was facing away from the camera, So my boss, Teddy Goff, made the very good point that we should see the president’s face. I remembered that our campaign photographer had taken a series of really great hug photographs at another Iowa rally, in the summer, and I went to our photo editor and she was like “Yes!” She found the photo, I wrote a couple captions, we went with “Four more years,” they called Iowa, I hit post, and then I closed my laptop and we jetted to the victory party. Actually, none of us looked at how the posts were doing until I opened my laptop the next morning.

And, of course, it had exploded.

I don’t think anyone on the team had a conception that we would break every record ever, it was crazy. I think it was just a combination of the moment, and just kinda lucking into a photo that people loved that I think showed the emotion and the relief, and obviously I think everyone loves the president and the first lady together especially, so it was sort of a confluence of factors. But, uh, yeah. It worked out.

Brian Ries is the social media editor for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, who produced this story in partnership with Tumblr Storyboard. Photo by Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America.

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