Mayoral Media Growing Pains Not Unique To De Blasio

Mayoral Media Growing Pains Not Unique To De Blasio

Mayoral Media Growing Pains Not Unique To De Blasio
March 2, 2014

Dealing with the media is a delicate dance for a new mayor and his press office. It requires having an ear fixed to the rhythm of the populace, knowing when to transition from a two-step to a waltz, but also anticipating the move of one’s partner—in this case, the New York City press corps. To that end, the early months of a mayoral administration can give hints to whether a communications team has two left feet, and if so, can they recover quickly enough to lead rather than follow? 

In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his press office have stumbled in dictating the tempo of the news cycle despite the mayor’s best efforts at projecting confidence in his ability to determine what news the public truly cares about.

“I think there has to be a different examination of what matters and what doesn't matter in the scheme of things,” de Blasio told reporters early last week in response to a question about whether he has been treated unfairly by the media. “Too much of the time, the debate veers away into sideshows.”

Yet there have been several instances when the sideshows have been amplified by a puzzling media strategy, from the mayor not immediately taking questions about his police caravan speeding through the streets of Queens, to the selective announcement of events on his public schedule, to his irritating disregard for punctuality.

But are these the normal growing pains of a green communications team that is still finding its footing, or are these missteps the consequence of a candidate and a campaign that was hardly battle-tested and received far less scrutiny than certain rivals?

Of course, each of the last four mayors endured bumps in the road in dealing with the media during the early goings of their administration. Michael Bloomberg was once lectured by a City Hall reporter on how to properly take questions at a press conference. In the early days of his first term, Rudy Giuliani overstepped his authority by directing an ambulance to take a victim of a traffic accident to a specific hospital, an aide recalled. David Dinkins’ first press secretary, Al Scardino—a former New York Times reporter—was reportedly so reviled in City Hall’s Room 9 that Dinkins was forced to replace Scardino in the second year of his administration. Even the effervescent Ed Koch fired seven deputy mayors after the first 18 months of his administration.  

Leland Jones, Dinkins’ press secretary after Scardino, said that it is important for a new mayor to avoid underestimating the importance of his relationship with Room 9 in developing a messaging strategy. Jones said that a press office has to “feed the beast” by giving the media as much populist, digestible news—such as Giuliani’s early campaign against squeegee men—as the big picture initiatives integral to a mayor’s agenda, such as de Blasio’s push for universal preschool.

“There’s this tension when you come in of, ‘Do I start big, do I go small, do I do something in between?’ ” Jones said. “Maybe you start big with one thing, and then you do a couple of small things and get a feel for how the ball’s bouncing up against the wall—‘How good are the people I’ve got delivering [the message]? Are we figuring out where all the kinks are?’ Because when all is said and done, that relationship between Room 9 and the mayor’s press office is, in my opinion, fundamental to the democracy in New York.”

De Blasio’s staffers, especially those new to city government as many in de Blasio’s press office are, will also have to “let the Kool-Aid wear off a little bit,” Jones argued. In fact, several communications experts and political observers said that de Blasio’s press team has too many “true believers” and not enough sober, experienced voices in the press office. They note that so far the messaging seems to be more about satisfying the mayor’s big-picture progressive vision than managing the daily news cycle.

“I don’t begrudge [the de Blasio communications team] their spin—‘It’s historic’—go for it, that doesn’t offend me,” said one communications strategist. “They seem to think that life is visionary … but on the day-to-day stuff they just can’t get their act together.”

Others suggest that part of the problem is that the de Blasio communications team carried over too many members from their campaign press operation. Of de Blasio’s press team, only deputy press secretaries Wiley Norvell, Maibe Ponet and Angela Banks—a mayor’s press office veteran since 1995—have city government experience, with Norvell and Ponet holdovers from de Blasio’s public advocate office.

Phil Walzak, the mayor’s press secretary, Marti Adams, the first deputy press secretary, and Rebecca Kirszner Katz, the mayor’s special advisor on long-term media planning, have extensive experience as campaign operatives, and, in some cases, in federal government communications offices. But they are untested in the battleground of city government, with its breadth of agencies, commissioners and $70 billion budget. That inexperience can make it more difficult to put out a small media brush fire before it turns into a four-alarm blaze.

“When you have a lot of green folks who don’t have that press contact or press experience, you’re gonna run into problems, because there’s a learning curve and sometimes it takes a long time, and by that time, you’ve antagonized folks, and once you’ve antagonized folks, the narrative emerges that [de Blasio] is secretive or untrustworthy,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College.

For instance, many members of the press have grumbled at the lag in response time from the mayor’s press secretaries when a comment or response is needed for a story. Other reporters note that Bloomberg’s press secretaries had specific portfolios of agencies and areas of coverage that they dealt with, making it easier for a member of the press to know exactly who to contact for a specific story. Evidently, de Blasio’s press officers have not yet been handed delineated portfolios, and political observers suggest that it may be due, in part, to the fact that the mayor has been slow in naming commissioners to numerous city agencies, making it more difficult to coordinate a unified media strategy.

Moreover, political communications teams often meld and develop in the crucible of a campaign, and, as an underdog for the majority of the campaign, de Blasio did not go through the same gauntlet of media vetting and opposition research as some of the other mayoral candidates. Then, because his Republican challenger Joe Lhota ran such a lackluster campaign in the general election, de Blasio went on cruise control—sharply cutting his public events and parachuting into the fray only when convenient. 

“I’m not taking anything away from his campaign—they were very good, they were focused, they were building his coalition,” said Bill Cunningham, who ran Bloomberg’s communications office during his first term. “But as everybody else fell down, he became stronger and stronger and ultimately he won. Everybody in that pack had problems and he was always in the right place to benefit from it.”

However,some de Blasio defenders said they expect the new mayor to regain his footing. George Arzt, a communications consultant and former press secretary to Koch, said that the media inevitably would become less reactionary, and to extend the dance choreography metaphor, allow the mayor to find a suitable rhythm in interacting with the press.

“You gain confidence, and there is more certainty in how you face the day” Arzt said. “You can’t always guarantee what’s going to happen during that day because there are so many uncertainties about this job, about crime, about accidents. We didn’t elect a robotic human.”

Nick Powell
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