Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White recently went through a rough patch for hiring a public relations strategist to a four-month contract at $12,000 per month.
He was roundly blasted as extravagant in editorials, on blogs and talk radio.
Ken Romero, a host at KPEL 96.5 FM in Lafayette, demanded an explanation for why White needed a public relations specialist when he already had a press secretary who sends “out volumes of press releases telling where he’ll be and what he will say.”
White ignored repeated requests for comment prior to the story breaking in The Advocate two weeks ago. Last week, White finally discussed his thinking.
“I brought some statistics because this is a topic of particular interest to me over the last couple days,” White said with a chuckle.
He said that under his watch the office handling “communications” dropped from 11 members to 10 and the pay declined from $411,000 to $290,000. He ticked off figures, such as averaging 1,700 calls per week, which peaked to an average of 3,000 after the announcement of the “scholarships” program. He said his communications department received 25 inquiries on average from reporters each week, made 96 press announcements and served a massive group of parents, teachers, administrators and students.
“I certainly understand the suspicion that communications is intermingled with politics, not with policy,” White said. “But, in our case, let me tell you that communications is in direct response to a demand that is made by our constituents to communicate” information about complex programs more effectively.
To be fair, White’s initial reluctance to address questions seems to be a trend among government administrators, politicians and elected officials.
President Barack Obama, for instance, gave a statement but took no questions during his recent visit to St. John the Baptist Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac. His opponent for re-election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, refuses to discuss how he plans to reduce the federal deficit while keeping tax breaks for the very rich.
At the announcement of a project in Baton Rouge two weeks ago, a member of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s entourage asked members of the media what they wanted to ask, then shut down the press conference after five questions.
Political consultant Roy Fletcher says more and more, politicians tend to stick to simple messages and duck questions. The fear is they will lose control of their narrative, the image they want to present.
Speaking plainly, in short, does not win votes, he said.
“Is that the politicians’ fault or is that people’s fault?” Fletcher asked.
Can you blame politicians for choosing a particular synonym, he asked. The program that gives taxpayer dollars to some students to help pay for private schools polls well when called “scholarships,” but faces much more opposition when called “vouchers,” he said.
“What word do you think they’ll use?” Fletcher asked.
Social media and the Internet also play a role by allowing candidates and officials to communicate directly with supporters without the diversion of pesky inquiries.
Fletcher’s sidekick on “Campaigns and Candidates,” which airs Wednesdays on Talk 107.3 FM in Baton Rouge, is state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who says lawmakers, too, often avoid asking questions during legislative debate.
“We just want to push our button green,” Claitor said about how many of the issues that pass before the Louisiana Legislature.
Part of the reason may be fear, he said. Political opponents can — and do — take questions asked out of context to create advertising that paints the legislator, not as a thinking statesman, but as a critic of a popular position.
Fletcher says that there could be another factor, but he can’t put his finger on it. For decades now, at least since the 1960s when government officials undercounted deaths to keep public support for the Vietnam War, people have been suspicious of the nation’s institutions. The cynicism hasn’t lifted as officials, even once elected, lean on clever quips and misleading facts to foster an image rather than address pressing problems.
The Germans have a word for it: weltschmerz. The word describes the sadness a person feels when they compare the idealized world in their mind to the harshness of reality.
Mark Ballard is Editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the
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