The First Lady needed a turnip.
By the fall of 2014, “Turn Down for What,” Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s triple-platinum trap-meets-EDM single, had swallowed pop culture whole. Jimmy Fallon and Robin Wright were dancing to it on The Tonight Show; Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum posed while it blared on the soundtrack of 22 Jump Street; across YouTube, teens and kittens alike bobbed their heads along. Spin called it “an undeniable force.”
An exclusive look at how the First Lady mastered social media
By Kwame Opam • Photography by James Bareham
The First Lady needed a turnip.
By the fall of 2014, "Turn Down for What," Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s triple-platinum trap-meets-EDM single, had swallowed pop culture whole. Jimmy Fallon and Robin Wright were dancing to it on The Tonight Show; Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum posed while it blared on the soundtrack of 22 Jump Street; across YouTube, teens and kittens bobbed their heads along. Spin called it "an undeniable force."
And then Michelle Obama joined the party. That October, Mrs. Obama held a Vine Q&A for her Let’s Move! initiative, calling on kids and their families to send in video questions about healthy eating, cooking, and gardening. Over the course of five days, she answered a series of family-friendly queries ranging from "What’s your favorite fall vegetable?" (sweet potato) to "What’s your favorite food memory?" (getting pizza as a reward for good grades). It was cute, but not especially memorable.
Then, YouTube star and President Obama impersonator Iman "Alphacat" Crosson chimed in. "On average," he asked the First Lady in his best Obama baritone, "how many calories do you burn every time you turn up?"
Mrs. Obama’s team seized the opportunity. The next day, members of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy and Joanna Rosholm, the First Lady’s press secretary, suggested a riff on "Turn Down for What." Rosholm called down to the kitchen: was there a turnip in the White House? Mrs. Obama got the joke right away. "I know who Lil Jon is," she tells The Verge. "My kids are singing it. I got it immediately, and I was like, ‘Okay, that could be cute.’"
Within minutes of seeing Crosson’s vine, the First Lady was in FDR’s Map Room, filming her response. "Turnip — for what," she deadpanned into the camera, a glorious purple and white root vegetable in hand. The bass dropped and Mrs. Obama closed her eyes, bouncing to the beat.
Simple and self-consciously silly, the Vine racked up more than six million views in a single day. The headlines were effusive: "Michelle Obama Makes Best Vine Ever for ‘Turnip For What’" wrote Jezebel. "Best Vine Ever" cried Us Weekly.
For decades, social initiatives have been a mainstay of the First Lady’s office: for Lady Bird Johnson, it was the environment; for former librarian Laura Bush, literacy. Over the last seven years, Mrs. Obama has focused on four major initiatives: Reach Higher, for teens pursuing higher learning; Let’s Move!, to fight childhood obesity; Let Girls Learn, for educating women and girls around the world; and Joining Forces, for aiding veterans and their families.
But Mrs. Obama’s tenure also coincided with the rise of social media: during the Obama presidency, Twitter went from upstart to global newswire; Facebook now counts over 1.5 billion users; and Instagram and Snapchat — platforms that didn’t exist a decade ago — dominate pop culture. With a click of an iPhone, Mrs. Obama can now reach audiences Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bush could only have dreamed of.
"[Social media] bypasses the middle man," Mrs. Obama says. "People can get to know me directly. They can see that I’m kind of silly sometimes, that I care. They can feel the passion, [and] they don’t have to have it filtered through another source. And young people in particular like that."
"We knew long ago [that] any time we’re doing any sort of communications for the First Lady there needs to be a digital component," says Caroline Adler, the First Lady’s communications director. "Increasingly, there’s no real way to connect directly with audiences except digitally."
Outside experts speak highly of the First Lady’s efforts. "She’s really mastered the medium," says Michelle Barna-Stern, VP of social marketing at digital ad firm 360i. "She’s personable. She’s accessible. She’s authentic, relatable. And she also has such a great sense of humor."
But social media is a double-edged sword: one tone-deaf tweet, poorly-timed Vine, or thoughtless Facebook post can spell embarrassment. That’s unlikely with the in-house social media task force Mrs. Obama has built: a close-knit collection of strategists, initiative directors, and managers who work to craft a digital portrait of a First Lady at once cool, caring, and in touch. A First Lady who can turn up with a turnip and make the country swoon, but still advance serious initiatives.
It’s a little-known fact that the First Lady’s office doesn’t have any Congressional authority or any independent funding," says Adler.
"We got nothing!" adds Mrs. Obama, cracking the room up.
It’s mid-January, and a large team from The Verge is at the White House filming the first ever 360-degree video interview with the First Lady and getting a glimpse into her social media hit factory. Mrs. Obama is swarmed by stylists, staffers, and countless camera operators. Amid the chaos she is warm and funny, playfully ribbing her staff and poking fun at The Verge delegation.
After the interview, I shake hands with the First Lady, introducing myself as the writer who has been meeting with her staff.
"Hopefully everyone behaved themselves!" she says, throwing an eye around the room. We’d arranged for a shot with several younger staffers taking selfies with the First Lady, and the atmosphere is lively as people crowd around the monitors to take a look.
"Almost!" I joke.
"Alright, we’ll take names later," she quips back with obvious affection for her team. The room breaks into laughter once again.
George W. Bush was the president you could get a beer with, but no one accused him or Laura of being cool. Bill Clinton was personable, but his cool ended at playing the sax. Hillary’s cool is detached and technocratic, raw power wielding a Blackberry behind sunglasses on a private jet. But the Obamas are different: the president reportedly texts with Jay Z and calls private meetings with Kendrick Lamar — his favorite rapper — in the Oval Office; the First Lady counts Beyoncé as a personal friend, and isn’t afraid to show off some Mom Dances on The Tonight Show. Kyle Lierman, the White House’s associate director of public engagement, says the Obamas are "uniquely able to be authentic, in a bunch of new ways and through a bunch of new channels."
The Obamas’ charisma in front of crowds and cameras makes them natural ambassadors to a younger generation. And their two young daughters Sasha and Malia give them insight into what resonates — and more importantly, what doesn’t. "I’ve got two Gen Zers living under my roof," says Mrs. Obama. "They don’t think we’re cool at all. But I know what they’re watching on Vine, and I know what they’re giggling about."
When President Obama was a guest on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns to promote the Affordable Care Act — the first time a sitting president appeared in an online series — even Sasha and Malia were impressed.
"We’re talking at the dinner table about his day," says Mrs. Obama, drawing the scene. "Maybe he talked to Putin, maybe he’s talking about a nuclear deal. But the minute he said, ‘Yeah, and I taped this thing Between Two Ferns,’ Malia was like, ‘What?’ The conversation stopped."
"This generation, they’re looking for authenticity, they’re looking for what feels real and natural," Mrs. Obama went on. "We know we have to meet young people where they are — they’re not watching the nightly news, they’re not watching the Sunday morning shows, they’re not reading the newspapers. They’re on their phones."
The shift to digital communication has been a boon for an office with a limited budget: Mrs. Obama’s team can now reach millions of young people at almost no cost and sidestep time-intensive bureaucracy. "We have to be very entrepreneurial, find opportunities and amplify them with surprisingly limited resources," observes Adler. "It’s a lot like a startup."
A Harvard grad who previously worked for the State Department under Hillary Clinton, Adler is poised and professional, always ready to expand on Mrs. Obama’s points. That quickly becomes a theme as I talk with the staff: the First Lady sets the goals and has the natural charisma to connect to her audience, but it’s the team that does the hard work of developing strategy, coming up with ideas, and vetting some out-there pitches.
If 2014 was the year of turning up, 2015 was the year of the dab. Cam Newton’s signature touchdown dance move went viral as his Carolina Panthers made a Super Bowl run. Suddenly, everyone was dabbing.
Would the First Lady dab for The Verge, we asked? It seemed like a surefire viral sensation. And Hillary Clinton had just dabbed on Ellen, perhaps the ultimate sign of broad cultural acceptance. It couldn’t be safer.
Rosholm, the First Lady’s press secretary, laughed at the idea but promised to inquire. She took the pitch to Mrs. Obama’s inner social media quorum: her communications team and the Office of Digital Strategy. Every day, these groups meet to discuss initiatives and figure out how best to execute them across the many platforms used by the White House and First Lady. (Those platforms include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify; the White House had just launched on Snapchat when we visited.)
Frequently, these conversations pull in the White House Social Secretary, as well as the First Lady’s Office of Presidential Correspondence and the Office of Public Engagement. Mrs. Obama sits at the center, listening to pitches, giving feedback, and ultimately making the executive decisions.
"There’s a misconception that social media is simple, because technically anyone can get on Twitter and get on Facebook," says 360i’s Barna-Stern. "There’s a tremendous amount of strategy, thought, and investment that really goes into it. What’s clear is that [Mrs. Obama] has an understanding of how to utilize the platforms and social media best practices in order to reach her goals."
Jason Goldman, the White House Chief Digital Officer recruited from stints at Google, Twitter, and Medium, says the team’s decisions happen quickly. "I’ve been completely surprised at how much faster this place feels than working in startups," he says. Goldman has a laid-back demeanor but becomes animated when discussing social media. "The advantage of these platforms over traditional media is that they’re very measurable. You get feedback on what people like, and what works."
In my conversations with Mrs. Obama’s team, it became clear that they care about views, clicks, and engagement as much as any media organization. The term the staff uses over and over is "land" — will a piece of media land? Will people engage and participate in the message it’s sending?
"We’re looking for the right moment to land — it might land a week later, or it might land two years later," says Kori Schulman, the Deputy Director of Digital Strategy under Goldman. "We’re actually in an amazing position where the First Lady is, many times, the one asking us to do more, to figure out new platforms we can use to break new ground."
"It’s exciting because it’s uncharted territory," adds Krishanti Vignarajah, Mrs. Obama’s policy director. "But it’s also daunting." A Marshall scholar with a law degree from Yale, Vignarajah advises the First Lady on international affairs. "When we launched the Let Girls Learn playlist, it was like, ‘Is this actually going to get any traction? Is this an interesting way to engage?’ This leads to internal debates about what will land."
Mrs. Obama puts it more bluntly: "We always say, ‘Well, can we make it go viral? Can we make it? Is it gonna? Is it going to resonate?’"
But there’s another component: whether all those views actually have an impact. And that impact — the counterpoint to landing — is conversation. In my talks with the staff, the word "conversation" was uttered 50 times. (I counted.)
"[Mrs. Obama] always tries to use social media not just to speak to people, but to get them to be part of the conversation," says Vignarajah. The First Lady wants her audience — young children, teenagers, parents, and soldiers — to discuss the issues she’s advocating for.
"It took an entire decade for people to understand that the internet is fundamentally a platform of human conversation," says Goldman. "It’s about participating."
Ultimately, the dab was rejected: after consulting with the team, Rosholm told us that dabbing’s hazy connection to marijuana culture ruled it out. Hillary Clinton could dab all she wanted to, but the First Lady would abstain.
Of all her platforms, the First Lady truly shines on Vine, where the White House has over 436,000 followers. The six-second video platform is perfect for her mix of straight talk and goofy humor. And to help push her initiatives, the First Lady’s team calls on Vine superstars, users that Mrs. Obama casually refers to as "VIVers," or Very Important Viners.
VIVers Michael and Carissa Rae Alvarado met in 2011 as extras on a music video shoot in Los Angeles. There was "instant chemistry," Michael says, and by 2012 the pair was married. At around the same time, they started filming themselves on Vine performing covers under a new name: Us the Duo. Their renditions of hits like Lana Del Rey’s "Summertime Sadness" and Blackstreet’s "No Diggity" earned them five million Vine followers, spots on network morning shows, and eventually, label attention. In March 2014, the Alvarados became the first Vine musicians signed with a major label. They’ve released two albums so far, and are preparing to put out a third independently.
Last October, the First Lady invited Us the Duo to the White House to help promote Better Make Room, an initiative that encourages teens to "make room" in their senior year schedules for the college application process.
"When you get a call that says Michelle Obama wants to meet with you, you stop whatever you’re gonna do and make it happen," says Michael. Us the Duo were joined by five other VIVers for the three-hour event: Lele Pons, King Bach, Jérôme Jarre, Amymarie Gaertner, and Chris Melberger.
For their Vines, Us the Duo sang a Better Make Room-inspired cover of Fifth Harmony’s "Bo$$"; King Bach slid into the scene woefully underdressed in basketball shorts before moonwalking his way out to Justin Bieber’s "Sorry"; and Jérôme Jarre gave an impromptu French lesson. In all, the VIVers produced nine pieces of content that have generated more than 91.7 million views to date.
"This group of five Viners… they had 41 million followers between them," says Eric Waldo, a five-year veteran of the Department of Education who now spearheads the Reach Higher campaign. "And after we put out videos with them, suddenly kids knew what we were talking about. We had kids coming in here saying, ‘I saw the video King Bach did.’ That’s incredible."
The partnerships aren’t limited to Vine. Mrs. Obama’s team recognizes that while she may be one of the most influential people on the planet, she still needs help reaching certain audiences. For example, the First Lady’s YouTube channel for Let’s Move! has just 15,691 followers. So she’ll partner with millennial flypaper like CollegeHumor and Funny Or Die to film shorts about the so-called "Snackpocalypse" featuring stars Chloë Grace Moretz and Tyler Posey to promote healthy eating; or do an off-the-cuff interview with Tyler Oakley, who has more than eight million YouTube subscribers, to talk education.
Some of the content produced during these partnerships addresses Mrs. Obama’s initiatives head-on; others touch on them only obliquely. The trick, says Waldo, is a light touch.
"The success of our model isn’t to just read the same PSA and say, ‘Please make sure you go to college,’" he says. "She’s going to rap with Jay Pharoah and have a sense of humor and make fun of herself a little bit." That approach makes Mrs. Obama seem more accessible, slowly but surely raising awareness with each share.
But how far can any social media campaign take Mrs. Obama’s initiatives? Can a hashtag reduce childhood obesity? Can a Vine improve college enrollment? "I think we have been able to move the needle on a range of issues," says the First Lady. "When we first came into office, there were people questioning whether childhood obesity was even an issue. Now we’re seeing the conversation has in fact changed."
The numbers partially bear out her belief in the power of conversation: in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity fell drastically in children ages 2-5, though overall it remained unchanged across children 2-18. At 3.9 percent, the veteran unemployment rate is at its lowest in eight years.
But other numbers point to harder issues: between 2008 and 2013, overall college enrollment dropped from 69 percent to 66 percent. And UNESCO reports that equal access to primary and secondary schooling has reached less than half of the world’s countries, leaving millions of girls around the world without an education. Starting online conversations might raise awareness of these issues, but long-term change will require that those conversations turn into real action.
Meanwhile, the country has its eyes locked on six would-be Commanders-in-Chief, each with their own social media strategy: Hillary Clinton has arguably the strongest Instagram account of any of the contenders; Bernie Sanders supporters are feeling the Bern on Tumblr; Ted Cruz trolls Donald Trump on Snapchat; and Trump himself has created a movement partly through his powerful and unparalleled use of Twitter.
Whichever administration enters the White House in 2017 will be building on the Obamas’ foundation. There will never be another "First Digital Presidency." And it may be a long time before another "Turnip for What?" The Obamas have set a high social media bar for the next First Family — and they’re not quite done yet.
"This platform is so unique," Mrs. Obama says of the White House. "We will never have it again. So we will spend these twelve months on every issue making sure we’re driving to the very end. We figure we want to drop the mic on some of this stuff."
Published on March 14, 2016
Executive Producers: Nilay Patel, Tre Shallowhorn
Director: Tom Connors
Director of Photography: Ian McAlpin
Art Director: James Bareham
Sound Design: Andrew Marino
Post Production Supervisors: Miriam Nielsen, Noah Shulman
Animation: Marcus Mullins, Scott Waraniak of Lunar North
Color: Max Jeffrey
VR Producers: Craig Gilbert of Total Cinema 360, Lucas Wilson of Supersphere Production
VR Operators: Joergen Geerds, Mark Walden
Josh Laincz, Kelsey Scherer, Jason Santa Maria, Tyson Whiting
Nilay Patel, Michael Zelenko
Copy-editor: Aaron Maté
Editorial assistance: Chaim Gartenberg