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Justin Trudeau's social media skills catch eye of White House

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's ability to go viral, seemingly at will, has caught the attention of the pioneers of political social media — the Obama White House.

Obama social media adviser hails the value of going viral

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's explanation of quantum computing during a visit to the Perimeter Institute has garnered well over a million views on YouTube. (CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's ability to go viral, seemingly at will, has caught the attention of the pioneers of political social media — the Obama White House. 

Trudeau's recent explanation of quantum computing — which has garnered well over a million views on YouTube — was described as "beautiful" by Jenna Brayton, associate director of content for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House. 

"I wanted to send an email to [Trudeau's] social media team to say 'Great job,'" Brayton said during a recent visit to Montreal. "They've done their research."

Social media and political capital

Justin Trudeau responds to a flip question from reporter with a good-natured, not-so-flip answer 1:28

It was the Trudeau's team's ability to recognize and package a potentially viral moment that impressed Brayton. 

Seizing such moments provide essential political capital by generating coverage not simply of the event, but also secondary coverage that reinforces the prime minister's brand.

She cited a Maclean's piece that compared Trudeau's explanation of quantum computing with those offered by bona fide physics experts and found many of the experts struggling to provide similar clarity in 35 seconds.

"That's really the gold standard," said Brayton, following a talk at McGill's ​Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship.

"You don't just want the press to say 'He did this,' you want the press to say 'Here's a bunch of people who can't do this.'"

It's not all about going viral

But the value of social media mastery for politicians lies not only in those moments that go viral. An effective digital strategy, said Brayton, is one that recognizes the ability of social media to connect politicians with specific audiences.

President Barack Obama's social media hits are by now almost legendary. Recent attention grabbers include grabbing coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and sitting down for a Between Two Ferns interview with Zach Galifianakis. 

More controversially, he granted interviews to three YouTube stars ahead of last year's State of the Union address. 

Among those who got a one-on-one with the president were GloZell Green, a woman made famous for having swallowed a ladle full of cinnamon, and fashionista Bethany Mota, whose YouTube channel has more than 10 million subscribers.

What about mainstream media?

Jenna Brayton joined the White House in 2014, after having worked on Obama's re-election campaign. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

That kind of privileged access to the president miffed legacy media outlets like the New York Times, Brayton admitted. 

But the YouTube stars provided access to a demographic that the president was keen to reach — young women — at a juncture when he wanted to sell the benefits of the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare).

"Bethany Mota's channel is almost entirely young women, who have an interest and a stake in the ACA, or at least in knowing that the ACA gives you a Pap smear for free," Brayton said.  

"That's a direct way to talk to all those young girls who probably don't know about that. If we had gone through the New York Times ... would all those young girls have read that interview with him? Probably not." 

Each celebrity appearance is designed to deliver a specific audience to the president: "He's never doing something for no reason." 

Dignity of the presidency?

Brayton, who joined the White House in 2014 after having worked on Obama's re-election campaign, recognizes that the digital orientation of the Obama presidency has rankled some; just as Trudeau's pushup/mic drop has prompted as much groaning as swooning.

Obama's online presence has, for instance, invited criticism of "entertainment politics" or being a "celebrity president."

Bill Clinton's former press secretary, Mike McCurry, told the New York Times that Obama's internet antics caused him to "worry about the dignity of the presidency."

For better or worse, though, Brayton says that social media and branding awareness are the future of politics. It has been an especially effective tool for the president in securing support for his perpetually embattled healthcare reform.

She estimates that sign-ups increased by a factor of millions thanks simply to the Galifianakis interview. "It's working," she said. "It's hard to argue with something that's getting results."

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