As President Joe Biden prepares to give his first official State of the Union address, government affairs teams should be making their own preparations to issue comments, clarifications, rebuttals and calls to action if and when their issues are called out.
There are few political speeches that get more attention than the annual State of the Union, which is mandated by the Constitution and allows the president to address the American people for an hour or so over every major network. Tens of millions of people will be watching.
The SOTU, as it is known, can make news and sometimes make history. President James Monroe rolled out the Monroe Doctrine during the address, and President Lyndon Johnson used it to announce the War on Poverty. Because it is delivered before a joint session of a very divided Congress, it also leads to some spectacle on occasion.
Smart government affairs teams will use the next week to get ready for anything.
What to Expect From SOTU
While bits of the speech are often leaked in the week before the event, full text generally does not become available until shortly before the president delivers it. That means teams need to anticipate what they might hear.
The State of the Union will start at 9 p.m. EST March 1. A rebuttal by the opposing party traditionally follows.
This year’s speech is likely to cover pandemic recovery, the U.S. economy, infrastructure, foreign policy and other issues that have engaged the administration. But SOTU speeches tend to cover a lot of ground and Biden could address topics ranging from education to immigration—and just about anything else.
Remember too that the State of the Union is often a lengthy affair, far different from the first delivered by George Washington in 1790 at 833 words (shorter than this post). Modern presidents tend to take about an hour. Among George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the shortest speech was delivered by Bush in 2002 at 47 minutes. The longest was delivered by Trump in 2019 at 1:22, though that was still short of Bill Clinton’s 2000 record of 1:28.
Presidents also have guests in the gallery and often call them out during the speech to highlight ideas, positions and policies (a tradition started by President Ronald Reagan). This can increase the length of the speech. Applause, which happens often, can do the same.
This year’s SOTU will follow pandemic protocols, with all members of Congress in the House chamber required to take a test and wear a mask. Lawmakers will not bring guests.
Viewership for the State of the Union is well short of the Superbowl, which ran to about 112 million people this year. But for a longish political speech, it gets a lot of eyes. Biden’s address last year, which was a speech before a small congressional audience thanks to the pandemic and not an official SOTU, drew about 27 million viewers, which was the lowest in three decades, according to Statista. Still, it was more than the 22 million who watched Biden accept his party’s nomination in 2020. Trump’s last SOTU in 2020 drew about 37 million viewers.
No matter what the viewership, the coverage will be extensive, with reporters doing fact checks and discussion panels, noting responses by members of Congress, and even counting the number of times applause breaks out.
Preparing for Rapid Response
Reacting to the State of the Union is an exercise in rapid response. If the president mentions your issue, you want to be able to address it quickly—whether to support, rebut or clarify—no matter what he says. Teams that prepare multiple options in advance and have their technology ready will gain the edge. The more preparation you do, the faster your team will move. Here are eight steps you can take:
- Prepare Your Messaging. Focusing on your most important issues, or those most likely to be mentioned, and assemble messaging for the most likely scenarios. For example, an organization might create one set thanking the president for highlighting an issue (assuming it gets mentioned) and another lamenting the missed opportunity (assuming it does not get mentioned). Have your leadership bless the messaging in advance, so you can move more quickly during or after the speech.
- Setup Campaigns. Will you ask your supporters to contact the White House or a member of Congress? Will you ask them to sign a petition? Setup your campaigns before the big event, so that they are ready to go when Biden begins to speak.
- Emphasize Social Media. For most organizations, social media is the fastest way to inject your point of view into the national conversation. That means this is where you will communicate first, using all relevant hashtags and tagging people (like reporters) and organizations (like your allies) you want to see your stuff. Afterward, you can monitor and engage. Amplify organizations that share your point of view. Rebut those that don’t.
- Use Text First. If you have a text program—and you should —send your texts first. Text has a 99% open rate and conversion that almost always beats email. Supporters also take action more quickly on texts than they do on email, which can sit in inboxes unopened.
- Use Your Relationships. If you are putting out a statement and you have relationships with reporters who will cover the event, let them know in advance that it is coming and give it to them as soon as practical. Reporters writing live are moving fast, and they won’t have time to hunt anything down. Also, keep it simple. A reporter might grab a quote from a release. They won’t read through anything complicated.
- Prime Your Audience. If you know what’s coming, you can get your audience ready in advance. For example, Biden is likely to give positive mention to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that he signed late last year. If your organization supported the effort and what it will do (or if you opposed it, for that matter), you can encourage your audience to respond on social media when Biden mentions it.
- Thank Your Audience. If your State of the Union campaigns drive notable action, thank your supporters for stepping up. Too often, advocates get a call to action, respond and then hear nothing more about the effort. Take the time to thank them and report any results that you can. For example, if your campaign inspired 2,500 people to write letters, tell them so.
- Don’t Forget the Rebuttal. The State of the Union itself is not the only show that evening. It is traditional for a member of the opposition party, in this case Republicans, to appear on television to give a rebuttal speech. If you plan to respond to the rebuttal, all the suggestions above apply.