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Dana Perino was White House Press Secretary under George W. Bush from 2007 until the Obama administration took over this January. She came to the White House after September 11th, 2001 and took over the press office after Tony Snow resigned in 2007. Fielding questions from the press, Perino was called everything from an "exceptionally normal person" to an ice queen in her role as press secretary.
Econsultancy caught up with Perino at CM Summit during Internet Week to get her opinion on Obama's brand strategy and what George Bush could have done better online during his presidency.
How are you handling the transition from the White House to civilian life?
It was much easier than I expected. I wasn’t really sure what it would be like, going from 100 miles an hour to zero. I went on a trip to Africa and volunteered. That gave me a lot of perspective. Then I came back, and had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people and decided to join with Burson-Marsteller, a global PR firm. It's the first time in 15 years that I’m actually allowed to express my opinion.
Burson is different from other PR firms, because they use the evidence based approach. I wish I would have had some of these tools at my disposal as press secretary. If you don’t test your messages, you're basically throwing darts against a wall. PR is a very cost efficient way to market your company, but if you’re doing it with the wrong messages, you're wasting money.
How has the PR landscape changed in politics between now and when George Bush campaigned for office in 2000?
Certainly Facebook has changed things. But also, there are just a lot more people — moms, dads, grandparents — that have computers in their homes now and use them more. Before, when they were home, they might have spent time watching television, but now there is often someone at home on the computer. People have gotten a lot more comfortable using the Internet in their daily lives. The Obama campaign found that sweet spot and exploded it, did a really good job with that.
What do you think of the way that the Obama campaign branded their candidate? Will his popularity last?
Time will tell. Obviously he was a phenomenal canidate and he is wildly popular and he has remained so. Although I would point out that he is no more popular than Bush was at this time in his presidency. When you make tough decisions, that popularity can fade. And that doesn't mean that his likeability will fade. You don’t know for awhile. But they’ve set him up very well. Also, the guy can’t take a bad picture, that doesn’t hurt. merica fell in love with him and the idea of him.
Do you think Obama's online success was due to work of the campaign or its timing?
A little of both. I don't know how much of it was planned and how much spontaneously sprouted. America and the world clearly fell in love with Obama and the idea of him. The question will be is will the politics be able to meet the high bar that they've set personally. I don't know.
Do you think the Obama administration will be able to live up to its promises?
I think that they will not be able to live up to all of their claims. One thing that's difficult — in February, he really excoriated the auto companies for having flown their corporate jets to come to DC to testify. And then he and Mrs. Obama take all of these assets to come and have a dinner in New York that they could have had in DC. I don't begrudge them coming to New York, but that kind of inconsistency can really wear a brand down.
They've also said that they would let people weigh in on legislation before a vote. I don’t know if the White House itself should have done that. They have so much to do, how are they going to weigh in everyone’s comments? We elected Obama to be a leader and be decisive. We can’t expect him to change his positions just because we disagree.
But history will have to judge. Obama is finding that out now. So far almost every national security policy has remained the same as it was under Bush. I’m fine with that. His base might not be. Everyone makes promises on the campaign that they can’t fully fulfill.
Did McCain miss an opportunity with his web strategy?
Sure! I think the Republicans learned a lot. In 2012, you'll see a different Republican party. The party is similar to how some companies were slow to see what social media could do for their business. But they’re coming around.
Karl Rove used to wait every Wednesday for the mail to arrive, when he was 11 years old, for something that would feed his brain. Now it’s like a buffet of information. Also, people can contribute. I think that in terms of success and disseminating ideas, that can certainly help.
What about Howard Dean? Did he fail as a candidate, or was the technology not there not ready to support what he was doing in 2000?
Both. Certainly both. Especially the issue of people having Interent in their homes and having it be a part of their daily lives. The number of senior citizens that are online now is astounding. It’s kind of hard to remember how we all survived before.
What did you emphasize when presenting the Bush brand?
I was always forthright when I didn't know something. I'd say: "I don't know and I will get back to you" And I really did get back to them.
Do you think that the Bush administration did that institutionally?
It was just my style. I was fully empowered to be myself. Tony Snow was like that. Scott McLellan was not.
Is the Obama brand profiting from a liberal bias in the press corps? Do you think that will shift while he's in office?
I do not believe I would always be asked about liberal bias in the media if there was not liberal bias in the media. It’s almost embarrassing. You need the free press to be holding people accountable. But look. When it came out recently that the White House had exaggerated their claims on the stimulus package, a reporter asked a question and got a blow off answer. The reporter response was "Ok. Thanks." I never would have gotten an "OK. Thanks" ever. It will depend on whether The White House has the desire and the time and capability to hold their feet to the fire.
What did the Bush administration do right online?
I think that our website, for journalists and constituents trying to get information, it was better under Bush. We always put up transcripts immediately, unedited, always. But it's all dramatically underfunded for the communications tool it could be. It still is. The Obama administration continues to find their footing. Journalists tell me now sometimes they wait two and three weeks for transcripts. But those are kinks in the sytstem that they will work out.
Given more resources, what can happen with government tech?
With unlimited resources the things you can do are amazing. But there aren't that many people to work on it and the budgets were tight. I think that it’s smart for the Obama administration to use the DNC to supplement their efforts. But I don't think Washington is ever going to keep up with Silicon Valley. It just moves slower. There are also issues surrounding cyber security. It could endanger our way of life and cause mass casualties.
So with the resources they were given, did the Bush administration miss any tech opportunities while in office?
No. There was nothing missed. I think the current administration is finding that out now.