Dan Pfeiffer on Humility and Meeting People (and Voters) Where They Are
Mixing Board Studio Session
Dan Pfeiffer served President Obama for eight years as his Communications Director on his 2008 campaign and then in the White House as Senior Advisor to the President for Strategy and Communications. He is a noted political and digital strategist, Pod Save America co-host, CNN contributor, a very regular newsletter publisher on messaging and political strategy, and best selling author (with a new book coming out in February).
Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Dan and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about the differences and increasing similarities between the tech and political worlds; how to manage the divide at work between too much political speak and zero political speak; and, how President Biden might adjust his comms strategy as we head into another high-stakes election season.
SG: Is it weird to be known more as a podcaster and author than a close confidant to one of the greatest presidents of all time?
DP: Life has been one really weird turn of events since about midway through election night in 2016. The whole thing is very weird and strange, but I guess life has been very weird and strange for a lot of people over these last few years.
SG: I don’t know how much you were talking about podcasts in 2014, but now you are helping run one and it’s a very big one. How is that front row seat to the media landscape? How do you even articulate the change between 2008 and now?
DP: I often describe this period as the greatest change in how people consume and distribute information since the invention of the printing press. Some very pedantic historians will sometimes push back and say that I am erasing the importance of the telegram… but either way it’s been a tremendous transformation. When I started working for President Obama in 2007, Facebook was primarily for college kids. It had not yet taken on its democracy destroying future.
Twitter was a platform that was mostly ignored for politics and news. It was largely an internal communications platform for people in the tech industry. YouTube was the place where you put up videos that you wanted other people to see. The smartphone was not invented yet, people were using Blackberries. If you flash forward to when you and I first met in 2014, how much had changed even then, and then you go to now.
It’s been this dramatic change in every single way — in what matters in communication, how people get information, how people think about sharing information. All of it has changed so dramatically. Back in 2008, even podcasts were this very niche thing, but they did exist. We actually tried to put President Obama on Bill Simmons’ podcast back then but the higher-ups in ESPN nixed it. They were years ahead of their “stick to sports” approach to programming. We ended up doing Simmons’ podcast a couple of times during the White House. And he did Mark Maron’s podcast in 2015, I believe.
It’s this fundamental change from this broadcast communications model, where people get the information that higher-ups in a handful of media places choose to give them at the time and place of those media executives’ choosing, to people having this endless menu of information that they can choose to get whenever they want. It’s fundamentally altered every bit of communication strategy and thinking. The way most people, particularly in my old industry, think about communications is still well behind the times of how much change has happened.
SG: If you’re starting off in comms in 2005 versus starting off in 2021, it’s an entirely different job. Even executives in the tech world still are probably not completely in tune with this moment today and just how much the job has changed. How do you manage this change when you’re a comms leader? You’re leading executives, you’re leading politicians, you’re leading policymakers on how to effectively navigate this environment, when it dramatically changes every six months. How do you maintain that tact?
DP: You have to break down all the old ways of thinking about it. When I started doing campaigns, at the very turn of the century, communications was press management. That’s what it was. It was either handling incoming press, to be responsive to this very important constituency who can influence how people viewed your company or your politician or your campaign. Or it was having a proactive strategy to communicate with your audience — voters, the market, potential customers. You were doing that through the press. There was this hard wall between earned media and paid advertising. They were completely separate things thought about completely differently. Within organizations there was almost always this wall where these people rarely even talked to each other.
None of that exists anymore. Press management is one tiny fraction of how you message in 2021, yet we still continue to have all the old structures — there’s the communications department, and then there’s the marketing department. Some of this is breaking down both in politics and on the corporate side, but for the most part, people are still adhering to that model. You have to back completely off of it. You can get caught on this hamster wheel of mediums, where it’s just, “Oh, it’s TikTok today. Why don’t we have a TikTok strategy?” Then we go hire every 22-year-old we can possibly find and say, “Give us a TikTok strategy.” And then you end up with brands, or politicians, doing incredibly tone deaf stuff, just to say you’re doing TikTok.
People evaluating that, whether it’s the CEO, the older head of comms, the CCO, have no metric for it. It’s just engagement — look at all the views you got, the shares you got, the likes you got, or whatever it is. You end up not actually doing anything. The better way to think about communications in this day and age is to identify audiences and then work backwards from there. Who are the people we are trying to influence and how are we trying to influence them?
That is somewhat easier in a non-political sense because you can have these more distinct audiences. You have potential customers or an existing customer base. You have potential investors, you have the market, you have these elite stakeholders — particularly if you’re a tech company and you’re still in private mode and you’re gearing up to fundraise. Whether they’re going to write you a check or not, there’s a set of important people that think you are doing something good. If you are a larger consumer company, how are you communicating with the people who are either using your product or you want to use your product?
In politics, that’s much more complicated because you can’t segment audiences as distinctly. You have to figure out all the different methods in which you’re going to reach people and sometimes that’s going to involve adopting new platforms or looking at it in new ways. If you have a platform or medium forward approach, you’re going to end up either not speaking the language or missing whole segments of people.
SG: The political strategy structure that still exists now is all around planks (it’s just a question whether it works or not). These are my three big planks and this is why we’re going to do infrastructure week in October. We’re going to do these planks– education, immigration or infrastructure. Then we’re going to adhere to that very disciplined messaging, going around the country to talk about those three big things all the time. Is that doable anymore?
DP: There are questions about the efficacy of it, for sure. That entire model is based around the traditional version of a news cycle. We’re going to give this big speech and there’s going to be coverage of that speech the day before, the day of, and maybe in some markets in the days after, and we’re going to maximize this moment. It’s not clear whether or not that still works. When the nation’s attention gets focused on something, for whatever reason, you can still maximize those moments, but dictating that attention is much harder than it used to be. And certainly the timeframe in which you can hold that attention is much shorter.
You have to think about the tail of various things. We know that this group of people — it can be young men ages 18 to 40, or Latina moms, a certain geographic area — you can segment it any way you want. But you know that you need to persuade them in some way. Persuade them to support you or just to choose to get involved in politics. You’re going to do that over time. You have some sense of what information is relevant to them, because you’re doing a bunch of research on it, but you have to communicate with them on the time and place of their choosing, not the time and place of your choosing.
Adhering to, “This is when the State of the Union is covered,” is just not how it works anymore. Particularly with the less politically engaged people, who are always the hardest audience to reach, and the audience everyone needs to reach the most. But that’s just not how they think about time anymore. And it’s not like, “Oh, it’s State of the Union week,” or, “Oh, it’s infrastructure week.” They don’t have those things on their calendar. You’re going to have to be a little bit more opportunistic and think, I have one year, two years, six months or three weeks to tell people these things. What are the ways I’m going to do it? Some of it is going to be through earned media that may be geographic or generational or interest based. Some of it may be paid communication.
One element that more and more people need to engage in, is mobilizing your existing supporters to communicate with the people in their networks. How are we giving them the tools to carry that message? The Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and frankly all politicians, treat all of their supporters as ATMs and phone bankers and not as messengers. But as long as everyone has a phone in their pocket, they have the capacity to reach hundreds of people where their opinion matters more than the New York Times.
SG: The way I break out successful versus unsuccessful communications strategy is that unsuccessful is typically reactive, successful is typically proactive. It becomes about being opportunistic. This happens on social media all the time, a meme that pops up is the most opportunistic moment to ride a wave. It’s the theme of the day, the theme of the week or whatever it is. I know that the next State of the Union it won’t be about whatever Biden said, it’ll be about a meme about someone’s reaction. Someone fell asleep, there was a fly in someone’s hair or someone clapped in a weird way. That’s what I remember from State of the Unions now. It’s that meme-ography of communications, riding these moments whatever they are. They could be deep and substantive or they could be completely silly, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s what people are talking about.
DP: How do you leverage those moments? Creating those moments is very hard. You can try but you’re going to have a very low success rate. And people should try, but it’s really about when those moments happen, how do you use them to tell the story you want told? Not just engagement for engagement’s sake.
From the position of my old stomping grounds in the White House, being that nimble is incredibly hard. It’s a similar argument on a different scale for a large company, but that is a very challenging thing. You have a comms plan, you have a to-do list, you have an agenda, you’ve got a whole bunch of other things that are happening on any given day that could stand in the way. The hardest decisions are about when do you walk away from your communications plan and take the advantage of this specific moment? Because it could be a risk. There is some risk that it’ll do damage to you or it’ll be just a waste of time, something you can never get back. Those are really hard decisions to make in this day and age.
SG: Let’s just pretend you actually don’t have a plan. You actually have zero compass, you just react to shit every single day, like the Trump White House. What’s more effective?
DP: This is one of those things that’s very hard to reverse engineer. You can look at that and say, well, Donald Trump is historically the least popular president in history. To an extent that you can, on days other than election days, provide some metric of success for a political figure, approval rating is the closest proxy for that. You could say, well, he is the least popular president in American history. So clearly his messaging strategy was not awesome.
Then you can look at it and say, he came within 40,000 or so votes across four states from getting reelected in the middle of a pandemic in a historic recession. So maybe it was successful. It’s hard because electoral outcomes are such complex, dynamic things. How do you factor into that voter suppression or larger bits of disinformation? It’s just hard to say whether his communication strategy worked or it didn’t work.
There were probably some dos and don’ts you could take away from how Trump did things. He certainly was not disciplined in any way, shape or form in using those moments to tell a consistent story about himself. There were times where he did and he used them very well to communicate with his base. But his communication strategy was more instinctual than intellectual. Whatever grievance he had that day, he would react to. That could be picking a fight with Jemele Hill or Steph Curry. It’s hard for me to find electoral strategy in picking a Twitter fight with Debra Messing on a daily basis. That stuff doesn’t really work.
But the one thing that you can take from it is he held the nation’s attention almost nonstop for four years. That blotted out the sun for other people, and made it harder to make other arguments. It’s certainly why he won the Republican primary. He started out with 100% name ID, in the lead, and he consumed all the oxygen in the room. No one else could ever get enough attention to pose a real threat to him. That doesn’t work as well in a campaign against a former sitting vice president who also has 100% name ID. Is dominating the conversation nonstop at whatever cost a good political communication strategy? It may be one of things that’s not even available to anyone other than Donald Trump. It’s not a thing Joe Biden could do if he wanted to.
SG: Joe Biden is clearly not dominating the conversation. He’s playing very much by his own rules, which is certainly not what he promised when he was elected. He’s not doing anything different than what he was doing in the campaign. If you were currently sitting in Washington, D.C. working in the White House, what conversation would you be having around how to evolve the strategy?
DP: What they are going through right now is very reminiscent of what we went through. A very different media environment, obviously, but similar calculus to when we were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2009. No margin of error. We had to get every senator, all 60 senators. We know that failing to pass it is an epic disaster that could cost us reelection and deny millions of Americans life saving healthcare. The most important thing was to get it passed. You are forced to choose between this terribly messy legislative process — where you have to take a backseat because of the egos of people in the Senate and the fact that you have limited sway. They had Joe Manchin, we had Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, a conservative senator from Nebraska, who were holding our efforts to pass healthcare hostage. Like Manchin and Sinema are doing to Biden now.
You have to take water in the short term in order to get this thing passed because if you don’t get it passed, you are screwed. And this could be your last chance of doing anything significant. Going forward, communications wise for Biden as they are still trying to pass this bill, there are limits on what they can do to improve their standing or to put in place really new, clever communications up until that moment. They are held hostage by this process and by people with whom they have limited sway. Traveling to West Virginia and giving a barn burner speech attacking Joe Manchin for standing in the way of his agenda is not going to get him there. It’s quiet diplomacy and hoping for the best.
So let’s presume this thing gets passed. How do you adjust your strategy? There are a couple of things to look at. First, they are doing what worked for them in a campaign, but the circumstances are very different. When I worked with him in the White House, Biden always used to say, what you want in politics is for someone to compare you to the alternative, not the almighty. During the campaign, he could sit back because there was this very clear domineering alternative.
Biden’s campaign strategy was clever to use Trump’s greatest strength against him. He took a step back and said, “Yeah, sure, you want to dominate the conversation? Well, why don’t you damage yourself repeatedly? Wake up every morning and punch yourself in the face on Twitter, and I will reap the rewards of that.” Trump is off Twitter. For everyone, other than the most politically obsessed people in the world, Donald Trump is completely absent in the public conversation. So there was no alternative, Joe Biden was just being judged against himself.
Second, his strategy of being quiet and less omnipresent than Trump was based on the promise that we were going to get the pandemic under control and return to normal. Through reasons that are completely not Joe Biden’s fault, we have not had that. We are still in crisis mode. So a president that seems somewhat absent and a continuing crisis can make some voters see weakness, et cetera.
The third question for them as they round the corner the next year is how much more aggressive can they be with Republicans — to raise up the specter of the alternative, whether that’s Trump, some set of completely insane Republicans in the house, Mitch McConnell or someone else. How do they have a contrast message that seems authentic to who Joe Biden is and is consistent with his pledges to unity? That is a pretty tricky needle to thread, and they have to get there. I have 100% confidence they will, because we’re about to hit election season. When he’s out there campaigning for a lot of Democrats, what’s the message he’s going to offer in these pretty tough midterm elections?
SG: In the spectrum of years that we talked about, from 2008 to 2021, in terms of where we are in the media environment — if you are a company or a politician and you’re leveraging it right, what year is Biden operating in now?
DP: Probably 2009, 2010. I think that’s his mentality. He has a very smart digital staff who have spent lots of time with our old friends who pioneered this in my White House days. They do some really clever stuff with the very limited tools available to a White House digital staff. His go-to place right now is a town hall on CNN. When he wants to fill a void, that’s where he goes. I’m sympathetic — they are a limited number of really cool media options. Particularly in a pandemic where the visuals you can have are limited, the number of people you can be around is limited and the logistics are impossible. Obama would go barnstorm a bunch of factories in a bunch of battleground states. It’s just exponentially harder in this environment than it would be if we were not dealing with the pandemic.
Ultimately, the real test of how this will look for him, is not just what happens in the White House, it’s what the larger Biden political operation and the Democratic Party apparatus looks like outside of the White House. There are just limited tools in the White House of what you can do. You can’t merge paid communications or media. You have this group of pretty ordinary reporters who travel everywhere with you and dominate the conversation. There’s limits to what you can do about that.
There has been less (for reasons I’m pretty sympathetic to) experimentation with newer platforms and things like that. I’m not saying Joe Biden should do a bunch of TikTok, that’s not what I mean. Just getting out into different venues and meeting voters where they are. Particularly if you look at where there’s been a decline in his approval rating. It’s among four groups of voters — black voters, latino voters, younger voters of all stripes, and independents. And independents is a pretty broad term that fits lots of people. If you want to get your approval ratings going back up, which you would obviously want, the lowest hanging fruit are Democrats. What’s the communication strategy to directly reach out to Black voters, Latino voters and young voters who have become dissatisfied?
SG: It’s probably not going to be a CNN Town Hall.
DP: What are the specific outlets where you’re going to find those people? It could be media outlets, it could be something with influencers who have real power in those communities, it could be organic digital stuff that is really targeted. There are lots of different ways to do it. Once they get this legislative process behind them, I’d be curious to see how they approach that.
I always used to say in the White House, the only interview that is worth doing on its own, is 60 Minutes after a big football game. That’s it. Everything else, given how fragmented audiences are, is barely worth the president’s time. What you care about is not how many people are going to tune into the Today Show or your CNN town hall, which if you’re lucky, is going to be a million people. It’s how those clips going to be used? Are you going to make news that ends up on all the morning shows the next day? Even more important, is it going to be widely shared?
The most viral clip that Joe Biden did throughout the entire campaign was the conversation with the woman in the elevator. Ironically enough, going up to The New York Times editorial board. The second one was the conversation with the kid who had the stutter in New Hampshire. How are you finding those things and then propelling them? How are you thinking about other ways to do that? Those are hard moments to manufacture. Neither of those were ideas on a whiteboard in the campaign headquarters. They were things that happened that they then did a very good job of turning them into moments that lasted.
SG: I have to imagine there’s lots of smart people who are coming up with moments that are getting killed because they’re worried about some D.C. thing and or some other machination. Personally, I can’t even remember a Joe Biden tweet. I read them all the time, but I can’t tell you what one ever said. They’re literally intentionally boring. They’re made not to share, because they’re so vanilla. That’s his personality in some ways and that’s being authentic. I get it. But there’s got to be some creativity and some inspiration that comes from that. Whether it’s the White House or the Democratic infrastructure — that’s going to be the thing that’s going to change those audiences that you talked about.
DP: Biden is great in unscripted moments. And look, it comes with risk. Every once in a while as VP, he would say something that would cause a flare up that would distract from the message. But Joe Biden being Joe Biden is great. We learned this from President Obama who was a historically talented, natural communicator. Finding those unscripted moments within the confines of the White House, behind the big presidential podium or the East Room is really, really hard. And it’s really hard if you can’t leave the White house.
One of the reasons why Obama loved leaving the White House to travel was he would have conversations with people at the ice cream parlor or a factory floor in Ohio. Those things could be the moments that took off, because it was without the formality of the White House where everyone acts so serious and everyone has on a coat and a tie.
Hopefully the world gets easier and they can get out and interact with people. I remember talking to some folks who worked on the Biden campaign, that it was so hard during the campaign. He got his energy from the rope line, from just talking to people and meeting with them. He couldn’t do any of that because of the pandemic. You can do more of that now than you could in the worst days in 2020, but it’s still really, really hard. And it’s hard for any president.
SG: You’ve been in the Valley since 2015. Obviously you’re on Twitter, you worked at GoFundMe, you’re connected into our industry out here. There’ve been a lot of people doing communications who’ve come from the political world into the technology world. What’s been the impact of that?
DP: The technology sector has become much more enmeshed in politics. Whether it’s debates over content moderation or consolidation, or you’re a company like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and are bumping into the regulatory structure at the state, local, and federal level. 10–15 years ago when people moved from politics to tech, you were bringing your political skills to a non-political environment. That could be somewhat useful at times, even though there’d be a lot to learn in that transition. But there was a tempo, there was aggressiveness, there was a rapid response, crisis comms muscle memory in politics that could be very useful in those settings. But it was really apolitical. A lot of tech was separate from politics. That has changed slowly over time, and then dramatically in the last few years.
Facebook has basically been in a crisis communications mode nonstop for five years. The impact is both good and bad. I have a lot of very smart friends who have gone into some of these companies and been very helpful in navigating them through crises that people without their set of experiences would not have handled as well. Some of the bigger companies are now chock-full of former political operatives from both parties.
Sometimes, because that’s the mentality in politics, they’re naturally hammers and treat everything like a nail. It’s overly aggressive, overly ridiculous. It’s harder for political people to have a longer time horizon for how to win battles. In politics you’re going to be unemployed in six months, two years, four years or six years, depending on where you work. If you’re an established company that’s going to be around for a long time, you have to play the long game about how you approach these things and how you try to solve them. You don’t have to try to win every battle as if it were life or death.
SG: The political folks bring a lot of skills, but there’s an element of this nihilistic, it’s just a game mentality — I’m on this team, I’m here to win. Then if I come to a company, it’s the same thing. I’m just here to win. Maybe it’s just this conversation, this debate or whatever around this one thing that we’re doing instead of actually trying to build this longer term relationship because this thing’s going to be around for 30+ years.
DP: When I was starting to look for my post White House employment, I certainly didn’t expect it’d be a combination of book writing, podcasting and newsletter writing. I thought I would eventually work at a company. I was talking to a friend of mine who I’d worked with in the White House who was doing the rounds with a bunch of tech companies. They were excited about this one company because it was cool and exciting, and in an interview they were asked, “Are you passionate about products?” My friend was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? I like products. I use them, but I have no passion for products — how they’re shaped or how users use them.”
That was this moment where I was like, oh, what motivates people to work on these things is very different from what motivated me in my previous life. The magic of the mechanics of how you make something easy to use, that’s an entirely different world. Whether it’s people coming from the private sector to politics and vice versa, or standard media to politics and politics to media — in any of those situations there can be some level of humility. You have something to offer, but there’s so much to learn. It’s a different world and you have to get used to being in that world. What has made the people that you are working for and working with successful is different than what made you successful in your other business. They have a different world view and you can learn from that.
And you can certainly learn it. You and I have many friends who have made that transition incredibly successfully in a wide array of places. But you can only make that successful if you are willing to listen. Sometimes people in politics, because of the nature of that business, are less willing to listen in those scenarios. In politics you think, what could be more exciting or important or impactful or pressure filled? And then you’re seated in a boardroom and people are like, “We have this crisis.” And they think, “Well, fuck your crisis. Were you there when we had this terror threat or the global economy was going to collapse because we were going to default?” There are times when people think your crisis is less than my crisis, but that doesn’t mean that they are the same types of crises. Having humility is incredibly important for that transition.
SG: Another big change that intersects the technology world and politics, is the fact that politics is everywhere now. We hit an era, in the last five years, where the political conversation became part of the daily employee conversation. Further enabled by things like Slack and other ways that employees can communicate. And employees gained a lot of power based on their beliefs of how companies should operate on these different political issues. What are your thoughts on this divide between too much internal political speech to zero political speech? What is the right balance and how should companies be handling this?
DP: The transition was so stark after Trump’s election. I started at GoFundMe in December of 2015. While I was there, there were a handful of people who were mildly interested in politics, some of the communications people had come from politics or had been in politics and were pretty interested. But the engineering team did not care. I’m sure many of them probably voted in the primary but it was not a conversation. I remember we scheduled our company retreat on the night of Obama’s last State of the Union. In D.C., no one would ever schedule something in the State of the Union, but no one at GoFundMe ever thought of it.
Flash forward to February in 2017. Our office back then was a giant open space. I walked past the section where all the engineers sat and they were huddled around the TV watching Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. I was like, oh, things have very much changed. I promise, none of them could have named Arne Duncan or John King Jr . — Barack Obama’s education secretaries.
Look, this is a hard choice for companies to make. Particularly at the companies who were at the forefront competing for engineering talent, the employees have all the power. And that’s great — workers should recognize their own power in these situations. The fact that Google and Facebook were in a bidding war over how much dry cleaning to give. People realize, oh, that means I can go ask for more stuff, and stuff that’s much more consequential than free meals. They realize, “I have the power to influence this place that so desperately needs me.” This becomes increasingly problematic for companies where there’s a real divergence between their stated values and their actual values. Where it’s, “Join us. We’re going to change the world. Connecting people is great.” And then you realize, “Oh, we’re going to censor our stuff in China.”
If you sell your employees and your customers, or your consumers, on one set of values, but there’s a difference between that and your actual set of values, then you’re going to have a huge problem. That’s why so many people at some of these companies were so upset at some of the decisions made in recent years. They’ll ask, “Isn’t that what you promised me? I’m not going to Exxon. I’m not going to Goldman Sachs. I’m coming here to change the world.” You think this is one of those rare places where you can do good and do well at the same time, but now, oh wait, we’re not doing so much good and you care more about doing well than doing good.
So I think a couple of things. One, companies have to be much more realistic in the stories they tell about themselves to their employees. In some ways, Amazon, which has a whole host of problems and is at the forefront with a whole bunch of issues, but you hear less about internal dissent there. I remember doing an exercise with a company helping to come up with their mission statement. We looked at all the big and audacious goals for all this company — explain the world, connect the world. Amazon’s was something like, “Be the world’s largest retailer”. This is what we want to do. We are going to make a ton of money. That’s why we’re here, that’s why you’re here. There’s no mystery. And if you’re on board with that, cool. I’m not saying that everyone should develop nihilistic approaches to the world, but don’t lie to yourself and to your employees about who you are.
Second, people have to be more upfront about where things stand — there is somewhere between anyone can say anything they want on Slack, and we are going to take our global content moderation problem and apply it to our own employees. Being very transparent about what is okay, what is not, what are the forums in which we would encourage you to do these things? A lot of organizations have a Black employee association or a women’s leadership group. You set up forums where people can have conversations about topics that could be contentious in the workplace, but they’re not happening on a company-wide Slack.
Setting up some ground rules that acknowledge that people are going to talk about these things, they’re going to care about these things and they need a forum to listen — that doesn’t get in the way of why everyone is there and what their primary reason is for being there. It’s not easy. It’s always going to be a little bit messy, which is probably good. But a little more transparency about what the rules are, would be very helpful.
SG: Another similarity between D.C. and Silicon Valley is the constant back and forth between the press and the organizations (here it’s companies, there it’s politicians). They sound very similar all the time, but I don’t know if people in the technology world actually know how similar it is. What’s your take on how we should be treating the press? How should the press be contextualized in this moment now, given their relative significance, whether that’s shrinking or not (and certainly is). You stated up front that the role of media relations for comms people is maybe 10% of the job. But if you talk to the press, they think it’s 95%. There’s this clear disconnect, both from executives and from the press about what we actually do. What is your take, having seen both worlds, and where do you think this is headed?
DP: The tech world is rapidly going through a transition that happened in the political world a long time ago. If you look at the political era of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, there was this very close relationship between reporters and politicians. Obviously you would get hard coverage, but there were certain secrets that were held and they were in it together. I’m not saying that ever happened in the tech world–
SG: It did a bit.
DP: Some of it certainly has come out about some leaders. There were secrets that everyone knew that no one said, or no one ever reported to a wider audience. But it was much more friendly and personality driven. We love the origin story in a dorm room, in a garage, credulous coverage of tech. That shifted very quickly, really in the last few years. Obviously what happened in the 2016 election played a big role. Theranos played a huge role.
As companies got bigger and more powerful and started to impact other people’s lives and the entire economy, whether it’s Uber and Lyft and Airbnb, all these huge companies had this huge impact. So the tech industries are being covered in a way that feels more like politics, which was probably more commensurate with their influence in the world and the size of the companies than it would have been before.
It’s been a very, very bumpy road. There’s been a lot of frustration on both sides. There’s a sense that coverage is now inherently and always negative. There’s a presumption of guilt in all situations. And that’s how it is in politics. The press decided around the Vietnam War and Watergate era (which has been good in a lot of ways), that our job, in part, maybe in whole, is to hold the powerful accountable. You lied to get us into a war, committed crimes in office and no one would know that, were it not for our dogged reporting. So we’re going to do that, we’re going to hold your feet to the fire in all scenarios. That is certainly the approach in the tech industry right now. You have to separate aggressive PR tactics and tough statements and responses with the actual bullying of reporters, that’s happened to reporters that we know. That is obviously terrible and bad under all scenarios.
In a weird way, the press, whether that is the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or it’s tech specific publications or the growing number of well regarded tech writers who are independent, like Casey Newton — they are more influential to the success and failure of tech companies than the political press is to the success and failure of major political figures. Because micro audiences matter a ton to particularly companies who have not yet reached complete viability. Look at what happened to Theranos. The Wall Street Journal took down the hottest startup. If a series of stories convinces the small handful of people who control the venture capital dollars — that’s the end of companies. Doesn’t excuse doing anything dishonest or bullying or anything like that, but I understand where that tension comes from.
The political press has influence in politics, but it’s pretty limited and pretty fragmented. To truly take down a politician, you have to convince millions and millions of people. And millions and millions of people don’t follow these things anymore. But you only need to convince a couple thousand people, those people of importance, to have a dramatic impact on the fate of a company.
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