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“The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language.” -- J. Michael Straczynski

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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.

0 Comments For This Article

Anonymous

This. Gray must govern. That said, he must also stop messing up so that he may do so.

Peter Rosenstein

I agree with this column. I think that Chuck has it right the Mayor is doing a good job and making headway on the issues on which he ran.

I also agree that there is a communications issue. I am not totally ready to blame only the communications team for all of it. I think the Mayor and former acting Chief of Staff need to take some of the blame themselves. From what I have seen there is a tendency to hold some announcements for too long and then to issue a slew of press releases together so that some really good successes get lost in the numerous releases the press gets on a single day. I know this isn't always the fault of the press office.

It is my hope that the new Chief of Staff will work with the Mayor to manage this and to ensure quick approval of releases to allow the press office to get them out on a timely basis and in some kind of order. As someone who has worked in campaigns and in administrations I know the value of forming a solid press operation and on timing issue releases in a way that the press is more likely to focus on what the administration or candidate wants them to focus.

The press likes to focus on the negative as that is usually more "sexy" and often easier. It also often sells easier than the positive stuff. Getting them to focus on the positive is harder but then that is what a good press plan is all about.

Maybe the time has come for the Mayor and the press office to bring in some experts to talk to them about this. I know a number of people with broad experience in this area who would be more than willingn to do this on a pro-bono basis to help focus the press operation.

Anonymous

Someone please explain to me how exactly communications has anything to do with a woman in the Wilson Building committing voter fraud? She should have had the balls to tell Gray exactly what she was up to and "Mayor, I can't accept this position as I live in Maryland and voted in District elections."

This is way more on her than it is Gray, unless we expect the Mayor to check all voter rolls before every hire. I don't understand why he's hiring Maryland residents for District positions in the first place.

Anonymous

Yes, Boyd et al must go. However, the best PR is conducting an administration that innovates, performs with excellence and acts with integrity. Ultimately, no amount of press spin can put perfume on less than stellar performance. As for "friendly" press, in the age of social media, why in the hell is Gray trying to shape his message through the Washington Post anyhow when he can go straight to the people?

Anonymous

Here's the irony. One of Pringle's early jobs in politics was to educate college students to vote, something many did not do because they still claimed ties to their home states (even though technically they lived in the state in which they were going to school). In those cases, they had the choice to vote absentee at home or register in their college town. The qualifier was that they were OK as long as they made a choice and voted only once.
I'm guessing she was following her on advice and voted where she felt home and informed. But intentional voter fraud? A stretch.

Anonymous

Perhaps Mr. Rosenstein can make his offer to Mayor Gray and the relevant members of his administration by email. It is a known fact that the Mayor pays close attention to his incoming email and will often reply.

I doubt that the current Director of Communications has a clue about what should be done to form a solid press operation. If she did we would not be in this sad situation of not being more involved in what this administration wants the press to focus on. It would be interesting to know if the Director was a part of the Lorraine Green brigade.

The fact that Mr. Rosenstein does not have a problem listing his name is encouraging and gives credence to his suggestions. As a newcomer to reading blogs, the posts and comments I've read on this site have so far been fair and uplifting compared to other blogs I have seen.

Thank all of you who pointed out the positives and successes of this young administration. It is time someone did. I hope The Mayor and his new Chief of Staff take advantage of the offer.

Anonymous

@ Anon- Fenty's AG, Mr. Pete Nickles NEVER moved to DC. He was hired as a Maryland guy, swore he'd move to DC, then never changed his address. Our chief of police also started out as a MD resident, but she moved to DC once she got the position. DC allows for non-residents to get hired for exempted service positions, but as a general rule they move to DC once hired.

If pringle voted absentee, she might be able to justify the move if she hadn't registered in her new state. Lots of folks do that in DC (Hill staffers, for example, will often keep their home state registration for voting and taxation purposes). However, if she voted in person (which it seems she may have done), it's questionable and it makes sense she resigned. What happened wasn't explained in its entirety, leaving parts of this story up for speculation.

On Communications, some of the articles on Pringle and the new Chief of staff mention their press-day went foul. This would indicate a failure at the communications office. One of the jobs of a communications director is to prepare people for press scrutiny and for tv/newspaper interviews. Has the Mayor's communications director gone through press training herself? I'd guess that a staffer who (on a public email system) refers to a major paper as unfriendly is someone who doesn't fully grasp media relations.

Anonymous

Nickles lives in mansion horse country, VA - not MD.

Anonymous 2

It is possible that Mr. Thies might be a little confused about how crisis management ‘works’ and how to position the boss with the media to mitigate bad news, because he trying to 'size up the game' from the ‘cheap seats’?

I too, have a long record of providing crisis management. Mr. Thies might consider that the Mayor and his top brass were not willing to listen to or accept strategies that might be beneficial to them at this time. How many times have we had a client that just wouldn't listen?

From what I know of Ms. Boyd, she has a long and distinguished record in the crisis management field as well as institutional knowledge of this city and its governess processes. It is possible that the mayor is hearing other voices in his head from outsiders or a ‘kitchen cabinet.’ These people obviously don’t know what they are doing!

Mr. Thies was looking for a communication’s strategy to save Ms. Pringle? Maybe Ms. Boyd wasn’t included in that conversation…..after all it was common knowledge around town that Ms. Pringle was the expert, along with the new chief of staff, who was going to change the message and rebrand the Gray Administration……stepping over Ms. Boyd.

The first rule of 'crisis 101’ management is coming to ‘grips’ with and being able to identify the problem. We know that it's easier to blame someone else for our 'lot in life.' After all, 'crap flows downstream.'

If Mr. Thies and the mayor want change in how his administration is viewed, then the mayor must get out in the Wards and win the voters back one person at a time. However, that requires work.

I'm with Anonymous. If Gray wants to govern then he must ‘stop messing up’.

Anonymous

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 other words, things have been on auto-pilot since Fenty left office. Maybe this is for the best, though the main critique of Gray was that he would be a bureaucratic clock-watcher who would slowly let the gains of Williams and Gray dissipate through inattention. Nothing we've seen from him so far has refuted that. Which Gray apologist was it that said we don't ever have to fear a return to the "bad old days" because "competence is now 'baked into the cake'"?

Glad to see the DMV website hasn't crashed yet, though.

Say What?

"From what I know of Ms. Boyd, she has a long and distinguished record in the crisis management field as well as institutional knowledge of this city and its governess processes."

It sure doesn't show in her work as Director of Communications for Gray.