Wednesday, March 19, 2014


After only two months in office, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has seen his approval rating drop to 39 percent, according to a recent poll, although today's New York Times poll shows his approval rating at 45 percent. Either way, that's a big drop in a very short period of time. So, what happened?

As is typical of a media feeding frenzy, the press smells blood. Since the first poll was publicized, a veritable swarm of journalists have covered the issue, some speculating, some demonstrating actual research skills. But perhaps the most important element missing from the analysis and conjecture is something a little more intangible, not to mention requiring an accurate working knowledge of city history going back more than a decade. (This is a perpetual peeve of mine about journalism today--little to no context.)

For me, this is a case of deja-vu all over again, for two key reasons. The first is the subject of this post; the second will be the subject of my next. As I wrote in my initial entry on ETHICS AIN'T PRETTY, I'm a veteran of both Dinkins' campaigns for mayor, as a volunteer in 1989 and on staff in 1993. I also wrote my Masters thesis examining local press coverage of the 1993 race, and interviewed a myriad of reporters, press secretaries (both campaign and government), and regular PR flacks. This is obviously an issue about which I've given great thought.

Over the course of his administration, contrary to popular belief, David Dinkins actually accomplished quite a lot of positive things. This a partial list:

--Beacon schools;
--Establishing a meaningful Small Business Advisory Councilwhich actually included representatives who owned small businesses; 
--Communicare Clinics; 
--Crosswalks Television, intended to serve as a local form of C-SPAN to supplement the late WNYC-TV;
--And yes--check if for yourself--crime actually began declining during the Dinkins years.

By the time I started on the 1993 campaign job, even I was skeptical about Dinkins, and I had to do a great deal of soul- searching to accept in the first place. At that point, I wasn't aware of his aforementioned achievements or successes. And why didn't I know--after all, I was a natural supporter who had worked on democratic political campaigns for years and was already inclined to be well-informed?

One reason is because the Dinkins administration never had a proper, top-down communications strategy headed by a competent, seasoned communications expert to get their message out. I know this especially to be true because we lacked the same exact kind of leader on the reelection campaign.

This is the story I gleaned from both my many interviews and my personal experience. The original plan was that a certain publicist to the stars was going to create a dynamic, cohesive strategy for the new administration, though whether or not this person was actually going to join the government staff seemed an open question. The press secretaries and the press office were supposed to handle day-to-day press functions, with this overall strategy in mind. But two vital elements didn't go according to that plan.

The first was that this publicist essentially either flaked out on the mayor, or was always just all talk. Neither his leadership nor his communications blueprint ever came to significant fruition. Fast forward to 1993, and some of us on the campaign staff were assigned (in addition to our other jobs) to work with this same individual, ostensibly to plug celebrities and other notables into the campaign. We didn't know about his history, and we did our best under the circumstances. 

We spent many hours cumulatively, on meetings, on travelling to and back from his office in midtown traffic, and on busy work--time that could and should have been spent on any number of other responsibilities. And for what? In the end, just about everything and everyone he promised never materialized. So I know firsthand this guy was a charlatan, at least politically. (I've subsequently seen him on countless red carpets, either whispering into the ears of A-listers, or standing on the sidelines as they are photographed; He clearly takes that job seriously.)

The lack of a comprehensive media strategy really hurt the administration, and was a key reason the mayor's accomplishments were essentially ignored by the local press corps. They were just not effectively conveyed. (I frankly don't doubt for a second there was also a more nefarious explanation.)

The other reason why Mayor Dinkins was perceived so negatively and weakly was the direct result of the poor choice that was made in selecting a press secretary. The choice, a former Times reporter, became so hated by the press corps--and developed such an acrimonious relationship with it--that it became inevitable the blow-back would affect the mayor. Fortunately, he was replaced by an extremely effective and competent person; unfortunately, the replacement came too late and the damage to the mayor's image was already irreparable.

So, by the time of the reelection, Dinkins was at a distinct disadvantage with the press, who glommed onto Crown Heights and the Korean boycotts as if they were the only issues to define a very decent man.

And just to guarantee the campaign's press team worked under conditions to obstruct its own coordinated strategy--while all along having to play defense--we had a "director" of communications who didn't inspire great confidence, and who was hired as a deputy campaign manager primarily for reasons other than her media prowess. Moreover, this person was set up to directly compete with the campaign's press secretary. Finally, there was also a press team, under the tutelage of a veteran from Bill Clinton's famous rapid response team strategy--which added to the discord.

Now, when I see how Mayor de Blasio keeps losing the narrative on whatever issue--charter schools in particular--it feels exactly the same as 20 years ago. Remember people, Bill de Blasio actually CAMPAIGNED he was going to reverse course on Mayor Bloomberg's giant push to privatize public schools, while pulling back and altering the spread and operation of charters. It's a bit surreal that he's getting his butt kicked on something about which many voters approved.

De Blasio was insightful enough to appoint a special advisor for long-term media planning, but he didn't select someone who had actually held the role before in this context. And it shows. When I read about his press team's lack of government experience, the resulting vacuum created because no one seasoned is in charge of the greater message causes me flashbacks--and not in a good way. I can also add to the chorus of complaints about experiencing the lack of coordination and slowness to respond to inquiries. It all feels needlessly chaotic.

For the record, I'm not buying into the spin about de Blasio's delay in appointments as an example of him not being ready for prime-time. Nor do I give any credence to the inevitable comparisons to his predecessor because Bloomberg had business acumen.

Creating a coordinated, proactive macro-level media strategy doesn't even have be the exclusive responsibility of one person. It just requires tested people with the right kind of experience, who also understand and are willing to work with your agenda. And this being New York City, and based on de Blasio's definitive win, finding a few candidates who fit these criterion shouldn't be that difficult. I can personally think of several.