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19 Sep. 2017 | Comments (0)

For the inaugural Social Paradigm Shifters podcast episode, I interviewed the brilliant team from the Office of Digital Strategy under the Obama White House to learn how social was done right, at the top level of government in America.

I’d like to share some of the biggest lessons of the two-hour lively and candid conversation (whittled down to a little over an hour for the podcast) with three members of the Office of Digital Strategy: Alex Wall, former Director of Online Engagement; Laura Miller, who stepped into the Director of Engagement role (after Alex left for a Director of Digital role with Hillary for America) from her role as Deputy Director of Online Engagement and Director of Digital Strategy at the U.S. Department of Labor before that; and Tanya Somanader, the Director of Digital Rapid Response, previously the New Media Director for the Office of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, senior writer for the Presidential Inaugural Committee and Obama for America.

Quite the powerhouse team, right?

If you look at it in a purely historical context, it is fascinating to hear about the “first social-media president” and just how much history was made during his eight years in office. During that time, the social-digital efforts went from a two-person tacked-on-the-side afterthought to a full-fledged, innovative content machine and think about this—the program was just starting to take its rightful place as an increasingly more powerful, respected and thoughtful communication arm of the government. The most riveting moment for me was when the team started talk about getting more traction internally and the moment that they were able to make real impact (vs just the creative and cool ideas), participating in an integrated strategy from the ground up. I was listening intently as they described the internal transformation happening and Tanya said matter-of-factly, "and that was the Iran deal." I about fell out of my chair, I don't know, I guess I thought she was going to talk about South by South Lawn or the White House "Big Block of Cheese Day," something like that—not shaping public opinion on some of the trickiest international policy possible.

As any of my readers can see, this falls so perfectly into one of my main passions: the ‘social paradigm shift’, the complete and total transformation of life and business in the 21st century. I wanted to know how a legacy organization, the 800 pound gorilla of the slow-moving legacy government made such a quick and impressive shift. This administration was the first presidency to activate on Twitter (growing to over 100 staff accounts), they launched Facebook live, dove into Snapchat and created a beautifully, moving Instagram account. And this new, real-time, always-on, publicly-facing communications dynamic is an enormous shift for businesses -- but wow, there were a lot of extraordinarily challenging experiences for this new team that I hadn’t ever really thought about before we talked (if you can imagine it for a moment, the Boston Bombings happened on Alex and Tanya’s first day at work).

In their voices, you can hear the gravity of the decisions and weight they put into each and every communication on behalf of the leaders of our government. They explain how carefully they thought about every tweet and blog post and even the bright, cheerful design of the Facebook avatar.

In the interview, we mostly stayed away from politics; although, unsurprisingly, there was  lot of love from the team for Barack Obama, as an individual. In fact when I asked: “what came first your passion for politics or social media?” Lauren said: "I come more from the political side but I don't really like using that term. I'm more of an Obama person than anything else."

Actually, they shared a lot of love and respect, not just for Obama but for their entire team and mission. They were careful to name-check many staff members who were instrumental to the success of the Office including Jason Goldman, Jillian Maryonovich, Kori Schulman, Adam Garber, Rachel Kopilow and many more.

When we focused the conversation to how the team was built and structured, something Tanya said really stood out to me: "They looked to hire people with “a diversity of opinion, diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and geographic locations... to make sure they were reaching the many facets of the 'American people.'"

What a remarkable difference that is compared to the white tech-bro echo chamber approach I see so frequently in Silicon Valley. After leading, training and guiding countless social teams, I feel confident in saying, this is likely one of the biggest reasons for their success (I mean, besides the top talent pool and partner resources, of course). But seriously, the research backs up the idea that diversity of thought ‘unlocks’ innovation. With that knowledge, I find it odd that more companies haven’t made more of an effort to increase diversity. I'll have to save that for another post.

Another difference I noticed between their approach versus businesses' and brands' is the truly altruistic principles that seemed to underpin the development of the entire program. For example, they talked about  “everyone” having “a right to be informed.” My heart skipped a beat for their passion and good intentions, followed by a stabbing sensation when I reflected and compared it to where we are at now.

On a lighter note, something other social pros will get a kick out of—when we discussed the social-digital transformation, Tanya said, “it constantly meant we were banging our heads against the wall”. I think I actually laughed out loud as I almost never have a conversation with a senior social pro who doesn’t use this exact phrase.

And just like every pro knows, we talked about the enormous importance of having top-down buy-in (which they say they had from Obama himself, as well as their CDO Jason Goldman). I expend a lot of energy on my soapbox preaching to CEOs the importance of activating digitally and supporting the team with resources to effect real organizational change. Obama, if you’re reading this—fist bump to you, my President.

Obviously, this hour plus podcast episode is way too much material to try to cover in one post but thanks to this amazing team, you can access everything they did at

This article was first published on Forbes.

  • About the Author: Gretchen Fox

    Gretchen Fox

    Gretchen Fox is a recognized executive and co-founder at MTO Agency [made to order], a social strategy and training agency that prepares businesses for success in the Digital Age. Fox provides a soci…

    Full Bio | More from Gretchen Fox


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