Rethinking Presidential Addresses

So … I’m sitting down Sunday evening and watching President Barack Obama on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and I’m wondering if the traditional national television network address has unofficially outlived its usefulness (as the core channel between the president and citizens). Last week, Maya blogged about the president’s recent media tour (aside from the “60 Minutes” interview, he recently appeared on Leno’s “Tonight Show” and filled out a NCAA tournament bracket on ESPN). The people who chose to defend the appearances said his primetime showings helped him reach people who don’t watch when the president commandeers the television set. As a professional communicator, I’m leery to recommend something to which I know the intended audience isn’t listening. The president will address the nation with such a news conference Tuesday, March 24.

In regards to the standard presidential television speech, there are more viewing options – and entertainment options – than ever before. It’s easier to change the channel and catch the bullet points in a news article afterward than it is to sit through people clapping every 43 seconds (in the case of the State of the Union). My question for professional communicators is: If roles were switched, and a CEO client (code for “president” in this scenario) needed to communicate to his company/people during a tumultuous economic time period (kind of like 2008 to present), would you really recommend to rely on a video conference featuring a one-way speech in front of an audience of division vice presidents and upper management? Warning — here comes a slight verbal jab: if you’re good at your job, I’m guessing the answer is “no.” Aren’t professional communicators always railing against “talking heads”?

If you stuck with me on that example/question, is it time to rethink how the president speaks with the people? What effective and modern methods and tools are professional communicators implementing that the president could use to transform national speeches? I’m willing to entertain all ideas, from keeping the current format with the addition of an online question-and-answer period afterward, to hosting a series of televised town halls (like it’s election time all over again!), to a hyped, televised outdoor concert with the State of the Union followed by an Etta James and Beyonce duet. I’m even open to scrapping the speech entirely and instead running a program like President Obama produced directly before the election. If you’re going to talk about people suffering, why not show us with video?

I understand the president’s office posts weekly addresses online, but what more can be done? If people aren’t watching now, how can the president reach people better in 2009? How much does the president bend to reach people who aren’t taking advantage of the current mediums?