Before Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama’s digital team went into overdrive prepping for the speech. They broke it down into every imaginable internet-friendly slice, including infographics, tweets, vines, videos and even a live feed papered with real-time visuals to communicate the most important pieces of Obama’s plans.
It went well for the first 56 minutes. And then this happened:
It was brilliant, funny and the greatest middle finger in the State of the Union’s recent history. Obama deserved the moment too. Despite unprecedented Republican obstructionism, he easily won two popular votes while enacting historic health care overhaul and overseeing the resurgence of America’s economy.
But was it worth it? Because while it was undoubtedly an amazing moment of political theatre, it overshadowed everything else. Any online conversation about the speech’s content stopped there. Sure, policy wonks and political observers — the people who would pay attention anyways — stayed glued through to the end. But the casual audience the digital outreach was designed to attract lost its collective head.
The memes blanketed blogs. Scrolling through my social timelines after the speech I saw only two posts of any substance; everyone else was talking about “the burn“. And that’s not just a comment on my friends. Twitter reported that the line generated the most tweets per minute during the entire speech. Facebook said it was the site’s top social moment.
In the end, the administration’s best laid plans went for nought. Obama’s ad libbed line delighted Democrats and infuriated the GOP while making a lot of people laugh. But the subsequent frenzy obscured the real messages of the evening — a crucial focus on domestic economic equality and Obama’s economic policy, a marking of the 2016 battle lines and the most unequivocal assertion of LGBTQ rights ever made in a SOTU.
And that’s the wider lesson from this year’s speech: If you’ve got a message, stick to it. Don’t be distracted by petty opponents, and don’t allow yourself to be suckered into delivering a petty punch in return. If you haven’t planned for them, viral moments — what comms professionals so often try to construct — are really a double edged sword. You may achieve an avalanche of coverage, but spontaneity at major set piece events like the SOTU comes at a price.