Social media through history: President Roosevelt

Social media through history: President Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt 1904If you want to make me chuckle, talk to me about how social media is something new – a recent innovation or modern cultural phenomenon. The only thing that’s new about social media is the standard suspicious business reaction to something that – quite frankly – ain’t all that surprising if you have a sense of history. The technology may have changed, but technology is merely the delivery system. The principles are exactly the same as they have been for millenia. Do CEOs and managers really believe listening and responding and building relationships with their public is a controversial new concept?

Just a few days ago I came across an interesting snippet of information. Over a hundred years ago, President Roosevelt noticed that members of the press were huddled outside the White House in the rain. Realising that wouldn’t necessarily inspire them to write friendly copy of his administration, he ordered that a room be set aside for them inside the White House – and so the presidential press corps was born. (Reference) Roosevelt understood that a close, interactive and responsive relationship with the press would help produce good publicity as well as good will. No longer were presidential activites confined to formal press releases with no opening for questions. Roosevelt answered questions of the press himself – the first President to do so.

Most successive presidents continued this relationship with the press to differing degrees (Taft abolished the practice until Wilson reintroduced it in 1913 with what is now recognised as the first regularly scheduled press conference). Harding, Wilson’s successor, required questions to be submitted in advance and would pick which he would answer. Coolidge was even more censorious, reading out a submitted question only to then directly ignore it and move on. This, understandably, meant the press developed a more cynical attitude. As a result, the press weren’t as accommodating as they had been with Roosevelt.

Today, just like Taft and Wilson, many businesses continue to pick and choose the conversations they will respond to, or restrict channels of feedback to certain topics if they allow any conversation at all. Sometimes they also try to ignore difficult questions or uncomfortable feedback in the hope they will fade away. I think we all know that such a cynical approach to communication doesn’t work… Still, the White House learned this mistake decades ago and reintroduced an open press room with direct Presidential access. Hardly a new revelation.

President Kennedy was the first to broadcast live press briefings, removing the luxury of pre-screening questions and controlled information release. This created an immediacy and accountability that no previous president had achieved. If Kennedy or his spokesperson refused to answer a question, everyone still knew it had been asked – on the record – and could draw conclusions. The control of information was therefore shared between the press and the White House, forming a relationship and system of inquiry and genuine debate that lasts until today.

No one is suggesting that there isn’t manipulation and spin going on and there are certainly times in virtually every presidency when I’m sure they wanted to just nail the doors to the press room shut with all the journos inside. Yet the pros far outweigh the cons with a far more informed democracy than ever before in history.

By opening a dialogue with the American people through the press room, the White House made itself accountable to the people while at the same time placing themselves at the centre of the conversation. Each new technology – radio, television, internet – has only enhanced this relationship. It is therefore no surprise that politicians have embraced social media in recent months as it is really only an extension of the same tradition. The new technologies did not create the expectation of open, transparent relationships – that was President Roosevelt on a particularly rainy day.

So if the White House could see the value in this kind of communication strategy over a hundred years ago, why do so many businesses balk at something as simple as a corporate blog or Twitter stream? Do they really think their activities are more secretive and precious than the President of the United States?