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Communication influenced Obama's choice


Published Sep 09, 2013

Efficient communication with the White House staff and a few research news items on the university’s website led U.S. President Barack Obama to visit KTH during the first presidential visit on Swedish soil.

Mikael Lindström with a certificate of appreciation from the White House. (Photo: Christer Gummeson)

Professor Mikael Lindström says that these factors played a deciding role when KTH Royal Institute of Technology was selected among Swedish environmental technology departments for a visit from Obama.

“It was the efficient communication with the President's staff, and a few research news items on the KTH website that led Obama to finally choose KTH,” says Lindström, dean of the School of Chemical Science and Engineering.

The first initial request for KTH to receive Obama during his state visit was received in mid-August. From the start, it was clear that the theme would be environmental innovation and renewable energy sources. Lindström and KTH President Peter Gudmundson held a first meeting that same day. Since then, Lindström has been the KTH contact person in the dialogue that followed.

During the first few weeks he more or less singlehandedly handled all contact with the President's staff, the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the American Embassy.

“It was clear that the White House appreciated having a single point of contact at KTH, to get swift and clear answers to all their questions,” Lindström says.

After a few initial contacts, the matter hit a temporary snag regarding the KTH premises. The President's staff liked the KTH library, but there were practical issues when it came to setting it up in the necessary manner.

Impressed by KTH research

Then came the turning point, as the staff of the American Embassy called again. They had read on the KTH website about prominent solar cell research and the mobile charger that was fuelled only by water, which increased their interest in the research conducted at KTH. Work quickly ensued to determine in more detail whether KTH would be able to meet the President's other requirements.

Mikael Lindström says Obama wanted an undisturbed dialogue with the researchers at KTH.

“For nearly two weeks, I was in intense discussions with the White House,” he says. “All issues needed to be settled quickly and carefully. Much of the correspondence was done during late nights, due to the time difference. I basically answered all e-mails immediately.”

During the last week of August, Lindström says that it began to sink in that the visit could actually happen, and so he contacted central bodies within the KTH organisation for help with the preparations. This included everything from security issues to premises, IT and PR. The way he saw it, it was important for KTH to be ready to go at every level.

After another day or two, a meeting was held between the Swedish government and the presidential staff, and the following day – 28 August – it was announced that Obama had chosen KTH.

Apparently there were between five and 10 interested parties within the field of environmental innovation that had been given similar requests to receive President Obama. The fact that KTH acted so quickly and succinctly during the first few weeks was the key to getting to host Obama, Lindström says.

How do your research colleagues outside of KTH feel about Obama choosing to come here?

“I have been congratulated a lot over the last few days. The fact that when an American president visits Sweden for the first time, he also choses to come to KTH is a great honour of course. In terms of image and branding, this is an immensely valuable opportunity,” Lindström says.

The design of the exhibition that Obama visited at the library was the direct result of the President's own wishes. It was the White House staff that had final say in what would be on display.

“Obama is very interested in renewable energy sources, as an alternative to fossil fuels. He has also shown particular interest in fuel cells as part of a sustainable future system for energy and transport.”

The President wanted individual conversations

In accordance with the Americans' wishes, the concept of the exhibition was a Science Fair, which would allow the President to have individual conversations with the researchers.

“Obama was genuinely interested in what they would tell him about their innovations. He wanted to have an undisturbed dialogue with them on site. That's why there were quite a few low-key conversations, and at times it might have been difficult for the journalists who were there to hear what was said. But it was a concept we believed in, and carried out successfully,” Lindström says.

Gudmundson’s role during the visit was to guide Barack Obama between the three stations in the library and give a brief introduction to each display. Everything went according to plan, he says, and he feels that the visit could have long-term positive effects for KTH.

“I am convinced that it has reinforced the brand of KTH, perhaps mostly in a general sense, but also in terms of our research within the various branches of environmental technology,” Gudmundson says.

“This will help promote the fact that KTH is a strong university,” says Mikael Lindström.

In the days following the Obama visit, Lindström's inbox has been full of congratulations and praise, not least from the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the American Embassy.

“I can't say what tangible effect a visit such as this can have in terms of future research grants.  Only time will tell. The big success is that the President chose to come here at all,” Lindström says.

“Even if an American president, for natural reasons, is not liked in all political camps, you should bear in mind that Obama is very popular in large parts of the world,” he says.

“Given this, I think that those who find out that Obama has been here also automatically assume that KTH is a strong educational institution.”

Even though Lindström had a crucial role at the beginning of the process, he say she wants to share the credit with all those who have participated in the preparations for Obama's visit, mainly when it comes to the organisation of the event in the library and the communication efforts to promote the research of KTH around the world.

“There has been a great number of people involved, who have done an amazing job over the last few weeks. I see this as a very successful team effort to promote all of KTH. That's how I view my role as dean in this context; it's not primarily to promote the School of Chemical Science and Engineering, but to contribute to strengthening the KTH brand in general,” he says.

Christer Gummeson