What do Speaker John A. Boehner and a windup toy monkey have in common?
More than you’d expect, apparently.
Boehner’s office recently released a YouTube video — straightforwardly titled “The Monkey in the Room” — featuring the Ohio Republican playing with the quirky toy.
The video doesn’t seem to have any real political agenda. It’s just 42 seconds of Boehner and Rep. Devin Nunes’ young children monkeying around, if you will, with an unusual office decoration.
But what the video lacks in political messaging, it more than makes up for in virality — the ability of a meme, tweet or video to spread across social media.
A clip of the video was featured on “The Daily Show” as its nightly “Moment of Zen.” At least 20 media outlets wrote stories about the post. It garnered more than 36,000 views on YouTube in its first week.
The speaker has long been a force in social media — Boehner has almost a million Twitter followers spread across two accounts — but lately the House’s No. 1 Republican seems to be taking more risks with his online image.
Capitalizing on the August meme of the moment, there was the irreverent “8 Shark GIFs That Perfectly Explain Why Senate Dems Can’t Ignore House Republicans’ Jobs Bills.” Before that, there was an Instagram video of Boehner mowing his lawn. And in April, the team dropped “7 How I Met Your Mother GIFs That Perfectly Explain The U.S. Budget Process” on BuzzFeed.
These GIF-laden posts don’t quite explain complex budget processes or delve into jobs bill dynamics — but that’s exactly the point.
Reaching out to millennials and others who may have a more casual interest in politics requires a lighter touch, said Caleb Smith, Boehner’s digital communications director and one of the key creative staffers behind the speaker’s online presence.
“I don’t think what we’re doing is reinventing the wheel,” Smith said. “We’re just meeting people where they are.”
The boyish 28-year-old, who at times has the propensity to launch into social media-speak — “content is king,” “we’re hitting for singles” — says people are craving authenticity. Videos showing the speaker playing with a toy, having fun with youngsters or mowing his lawn are “just part of who John Boehner is,” he said.
Of course, the brain trust in Boehner’s office understands these items can become fodder for the speaker’s detractors. But, as Smith said, “Haters gonna hate.”
Boehner’s team believes the positives of putting the speaker in front of new audiences — and potential voters — far outweigh any negatives.
That doesn’t mean they go with every concept they have — Smith said many ideas are killed along the way.
“It’s not like these things are done without a lot of thought.”
Smith stressed the importance of context. The team’s light-hearted Shark Week GIFs, for example, came out just as riots in Ferguson, Mo., were heating up. Getting cute with the absurdity of Capitol Hill life when real news is breaking elsewhere can come off as tone-deaf — a risk the social media team is acutely aware of.
“Timing is definitely a serious consideration. We’re pretty conscious of when and how these things are distributed,” Smith said.
The process, according to Smith, begins with an idea. Someone will pitch a concept to the Boehner communications team, and the 6- to 10-person squad either moves ahead or discards it.
Most Washington pols play it safe on social media, with offices content to send out zestless news releases rather than courting a new generation with edgy posts that could make their bosses look silly.
Instead of looking to other politicians for inspiration, Boehner’s team tries to “get outside of the echo chamber.”
It’s not always about leading the conversation or about looking 100 percent fantastic. “Often times you just have to dive in,” Smith said.
JD Chang, the social media guru who founded Trendpo, a company that works with politicians to amplify their social media outreach, says Boehner’s digital strategy helps him reach a larger audience, “particularly a younger audience.”
Chang said politicians need to understand they’re competing with entertainment, that you can’t always “speak lofty.” Younger viewers identify with interesting politicians, and posts with a did-you-see-what-Boehner-did quality help the speaker engage that audience, Chang said.
It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off for Boehner and Co.
In the past 10 months, House Republicans have posted more than 8,500 videos. And in the past 20 months, according to data furnished by Smith, more than 78.2 million minutes have been watched.
These gaudy numbers continue to grow as communications staffers learn that a politician’s message doesn’t have to be a social media slam-dunk to be a success . Politicians like Boehner can settle with smaller victories, one monkey at a time.
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