“The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language.” -- J. Michael Straczynski
The last time I checked, trash was being picked up, potholes were filled, police were patrolling, renewing my driving license could be accomplished online, Congress had not taken over our local government, the District’s budget was balanced and bond rating stable.
In addition, Mayor Vince Gray and his administration opened schools on time, managed the shock of an earthquake and took prudent steps to prepare for the possible arrival of a hurricane.
In other words, the trains are running on time.
Nonetheless, the Gray administration is often portrayed as under fire, dogged by scandal, and mired in missteps.
Granted, the hiring fiasco that made Sulaimon Brown a household name is no laughing matter. But if you were to imagine the District at present governed by a certain arrogant, jerkish mayor, it would probably be managed no differently than it is by Mayor Gray.
Therein lies the problem.
Adrian Fenty failed at communicating and lost his job. Gray is failing at communicating, the consequences of which are diminished political capital.
I am not a rear-view mirror kind of guy, so I will leave it to historians to dissect Fenty’s communications shortcomings. Mayor Gray, however, has three years and four months remaining in his term. He also has a new chief of staff, Christopher Murphy, who has vowed to review all personnel.
My advice to Murphy: begin with the mayor’s communications team.
The irony here is nearly painful. In addition to a new chief of staff, last week Gray hired a deputy chief of staff, Andrea “Andi” Pringle, to oversee communications and community affairs. Before the end of one week on the job Pringle found herself embroiled in controversy. A government watchdog discovered that Pringle had voted in a D.C. election while residing in Maryland. Yesterday, Pringle tendered her resignation with a letter stating, “I have become a distraction.”
The details about Pringle’s voter registration and residency are fuzzy, but what undid her was mismanaged media. Most matters of this nature can be survived. It is not the bad press that dooms you. Rather, managing the bad press is the difference between life and death.
The Pringle debacle is not the first failure of Gray’s communications team. Going back to the beginning of the hiring scandals, when questions arose about staff salaries exceeding legal limits, a Gray official told the Washington Post, "I like to deal in round numbers."
A communications team that allows an administration official to say such a thing on the record should be immediately put on probation, especially when the team is led by a director who views the press as “friendly.”
Internal emails first reported in the Washington City Paper reveal Gray’s communications director, Linda Wharton-Boyd, describing a Post reporter as “rather friendly press,” adding, “but her editors are not."
Such a viewpoint goes well beyond the realm of naïve and borders on dereliction of duty. Journalists are neither friendly nor evil. They have a job to do. Assuming they are allies or adversaries is a surefire means for courting disaster. It is also a lesson that is taught in Communications 101.
Reporters and pundits who cover D.C. politics have been reluctant to criticize Wharton-Boyd and her staff in print or on the airwaves (I suspect there are three reasons: access; cordial professionalism, and; blunders make sensational reporting easier, so why chase the boss off the job), but in private conversations, nearly every journalist with whom I have spoke questions the acumen of the communications team.
That is not to say Wharton-Boyd and her staff have had it easy. Gray replaced a mayor who was very popular with a large bloc of voters. He almost immediately had to navigate troubled waters. And, scandal sells.
But we are in the ninth month of the Gray administration and, if nothing else, the new staff acquisitions announced last week represented a potential turning point for the mayor. It was an opportunity to hit the reset button.
Momentum --schools opened, natural disasters were mitigated-- was on Gray’s side.
Then came a mini-scandal that most agree was surmountable with the right media strategy. But there was no effective rapid response and no damage control campaign.
The reset moment has been lost. A second one will be hard to come by.
If the new chief of staff does not find the right communications team, any improvements he makes may amount to a tree falling in the woods. That would be a shame. With 40 months left to govern, the Gray administration can accomplish a great deal.
Chuck Thies hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org.