The Billings Outpost

Bullock’s public relations effort in disarray

HELENA HANDBAG

Cathy Siegner

I ran into Gov. Steve Bullock on a recent Saturday afternoon, almost literally. He was jogging on a mountain trail on the southern edge of Helena and, as he ran past, I offered the untimely (and probably unwelcome) comment that he might want to get his public-relations folks in order because they were going off-shift, or words to that effect. He smiled and kept on jogging.

I’ve known Bullock a long time, back when he was just another state agency lawyer in town and before he was attorney general. He always seemed like a relatively stand-up guy who was pretty candid about his views and believed in trying to follow them through with action.

That’s why it’s so baffling that, now that he’s governor, Bullock seems to be following someone else’s lousy PR advice and trying to manipulate the press and, through it, the public with obfuscation and threats, or, more accurately, allowing his staff to do so.

Latest case in point is his communications director, Dave Parker, whose coming on board in January was never publicly announced, as far as I can tell. Parker is a political operative who has worked on congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, for advocacy groups and for the Montana Democratic Party.

That type of background is useful in many areas, but not generally for establishing and nurturing helpful and productive relations with the press. To have an effective communications director (and I’ve been one), you need someone who has actual media experience and therefore understands on a practical level what reporters and editors need to do their jobs quickly and accurately.

What you don’t want in that position is someone who thinks first about how to spin the news to make their boss look good, and then, should any pushback occur, tries to play a shell game with reporters who want, need and deserve timely and truthful information from the state’s highest elected office.

Apparently Parker tends to engage in the latter. In April, he sent out a press advisory (usually a brief announcement with few details) that Bullock was planning a $45-million aid package for parts of Eastern Montana impacted by the Bakken oil boom and would be making a “whistle stop tour” two days later to Culbertson, Sidney, Glendive and Billings to promote it.

Unfortunately, at least from a media-relations standpoint, this information had not been shared with certain politicians in the eastern part of the state, who took exception to the fact that they were not in the loop. One of them, state Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, also thought that the Legislature should be consulted on that type of appropriation.

“I found out about it this morning. I didn’t know he was coming to town. I got an email from someone in Billings,” Knudsen reportedly said.

Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey covered the situation in an April 17 story headlined, “Bullock to unveil $45 million Bakken communities aid package.” At the end of the story was this sentence: “Contacted by The Gazette, Bullock’s communications director, Dave Parker, would not elaborate on the funding mechanisms for the aid package, and then threatened to exclude The Gazette from further advisories from the governor if the newspaper reported on the aid package before the governor’s whistle stop tour.”

For a politician, that is not the type of information you want out there, especially in a state like Montana, which has a lot of real estate but is actually a small town where news is concerned. Predictably, this development was picked up and expanded upon, most widely by Jim Romenesko, who has a national media blog at http://jimromenesko.com.

This is what he posted the same day as Lutey’s story under the heading, “MONTANA GOVERNOR’S MEDIA GUY REALLY KNOWS HOW TO HURT A NEWSPAPER!

Montana governor’s communications director vs. Billings Gazette”:

“Gazette political reporter Tom Lutey tells Romenesko readers: ‘Gov. Bullock’s office issued a non-embargoed advisory. We reported it. If Mr. Parker chooses to exclude The Gazette in the future, we will certainly report that, too.’ I’ve asked Parker if the Gazette is now off his advisories email list. He hasn’t responded to my voicemail message.”

There are several demerits to hand out here. First, whoever in the governor’s office cooked up this “whistle stop tour” should have given the press another day or two of notice. Second, someone in Bullock’s government-relations department should have informed legislators from that area (even if they’re from the other party) that the governor was coming and why.

Third, the governor’s “communications director” should never threaten any media outlet with exclusion from future announcements, no matter what the circumstances. Fourth, Parker should respond to inquiries such as Romenesko’s even if he would rather not. It’s part of the job. Fifth, somebody in the governor’s office should be prepared to expand upon the proposed funding mechanisms for this $45-million aid package and let the press and the public know when and where they plan to do so. After all, it’s our money.

It’s official

The U.S. is now a plutocratic oligarchy and not a democracy. How do we know this? Because Princeton University and Northwestern University researchers have studied the situation and, in 42 pages, decided that, in social-science speak, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Or, as the BCC translated those conclusions this past week, “The wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.”

The study consisted of reviewing answers to approximately 1,800 survey questions about public policy issues asked of Americans between 1982 and 2002. The survey responses were broken down by income level and analyzed to see how often those income levels and organized interest groups saw their preferences regarding public policy come to pass.

The researchers summarized their findings this way: “A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one out of five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four out of five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.” They further noted, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

The conclusion of the report: “American do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

Big prize

The annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced in April, and the coveted public service award went to both The Washington Post and The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, for their respective series of reports about the U.S. National Security Administration spying on U.S. citizens and numerous world leaders.

The Guardian was cited for 14 stories its New York-based staff produced on this complex issue between June and December of last year, while the Post staff was honored for producing 20 related stories during that same time period. All of these articles can be accessed at www.pulitzer.org.

Great ad

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, aka, the “tan man,” has a nominal primary opponent in the form of J.D. Winteregg, a high school and college French teacher whose views have been described as “tea-party oriented.” If I lived in Ohio, I might support this guy merely on the strength of a recent web ad he produced calling out Boehner for having “electile dysfunction.”

Spoofing drug commercials for erectile dysfunction, the ad’s narrator intones, “Your electile dysfunction? It could be a question of blood flow. Sometimes when a politician has been in D.C. too long, it goes to his head,” while various images show Boehner joking around with President Obama. After making it to YouTube, the ad had received more than 10,000 views, which is probably a lot more than Winteregg’s poorly financed campaign could have imagined.

Quote of the week

“Perhaps we ought to suck it up, admit we have a classist society and do like England where we have a House of Lords and a House of Commoners, instead of pretending as though we all have some kind of equal opportunity here.”

- Chicago blogger Robyn Pennacchia at deathandtaxes.com, April 15, commenting on the recent study from Princeton and Northwestern universities concluding that the U.S. is not a democracy but an oligarchy.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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