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The YouTube Phenomenon

Barack Obama has a lot to teach CEOs about communicating via YouTube.


CEOs and other C-suite occupants have been following the presidential race and the tussle to be the Democratic nominee, but they may be overlooking the implication for themselves. Let’s call it the “CEObama” effect.

Expectations for our leaders sometimes change sharply and quickly. During the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, the first ever to be televised, Richard Nixon looked dark and sweaty, untrustworthy and pedantic. John Kennedy, by contrast, appeared comfortable, credible, and optimistic. He was at home on the medium. 

Then along came my former boss, President Ronald Reagan. He was eminently comfortable talking to us. He really was the first president to be able to talk through the camera, rather than just at it.

Now comes Sen. Barack Obama, the first YouTube candidate. Though derided by critics as long on rhetoric and short on specifics, Obama teaches us that people want to hear their leaders articulating a message of hope about the future. And YouTube is where he shines.

It seems like YouTube has been around forever, but it only started in 2005. When JetBlue CEO David Neeleman posted short, direct-to-camera YouTube comments to customers and employees in the aftermath of snowstorms that paralyzed the Northeast last year and caused hundreds of JetBlue flights to be canceled, it was clear that YouTube had emerged as the newest corporate communication channel. 

YouTube is more than just video postings. It’s a different way of thinking that demands different performance skills—very short comments, and the ability to talk conversationally through the camera to a single person. There may be tens, hundreds, or thousands of people in the target “audience,” but they listen to you on YouTube one at a time. It’s what we call “person-to-person video-enabled” communication.

So, what are the implications for CEOs? Give up scripts and teleprompters unless the material is written, as Winston Churchill famously advised, and use lots of commas, half sentences, and repetitions. Second, the name of the game in this new universe is frequent, fast, and flexible. We, and especially the younger members of the audience spectrum, want to hear from our CEOs much more often than a monthly video newsletter. 

The good news for chief executives is that this  talent can be learned. It’s all about telling stories, using props, working in humor, understanding how to set up a speech, improving your timing, and so on. Beware, though: You may get no help from your internal corporate video or audio/visual department. They have been raised to think that the more production elements and the fancier the video, the better. YouTube is just the opposite. The best Obama videos are straight to camera, clean, simple, and compelling. He’s talking to each of us as an individual.

Released in January, the 2008 edition of the annual Trust Barometer from the Edelman Co. found that people ranked CEOs as only 36 percent believable. They ranked “people like me” as 58 percent believable, and approximately 80 percent said they were more likely to believe what they see, read, or hear about a company if someone they know has already mentioned it to them. The YouTube/person-to-person video technique is a powerful tool to change perceptions—away from the “CEO talking top-down” model to “someone I know talking directly to me, and engaging me.”

The “CEObama” lesson was summed up succinctly in The Wall Street Journal by Stephen F. Hayes. Hayes quoted a videotaped session at Google last fall where Sen. Obama said that Americans were looking for someone to “gather the talent together and then mobilize that talent to achieve, and to inspire a sense of hope and possibility.” Hayes identified this message as the one that is motivating voters. It’s what employees are looking to contemporary CEOs for, as well.

Recently, Northwest Airlines CEO Douglas Steenland, who was trying to persuade pilots to cooperate on a seniority agreement, wrote a company memo stressing the importance of change. Howard Schultz, the founder and newly reinstated CEO of Starbucks, shut all the stores for three hours on the same night to retrain employees in an attempt to recapture the chain’s magic. He spoke live on video and told them, “This is not about training. This is about the love and compassion and commitment we need to have for the customer.”

Memos like the one Steenland wrote won’t die anytime soon, but the “CEObama” imperative is going in Schultz’s direction. Hope is in, and the YouTube style of communication will become ever more important.

Merrie Spaeth is one of the country’s leading communications strategists. After serving as President Reagan’s director of media relations, she founded Dallas-based Spaeth Communications in 1987. She is also a lecturer at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.

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