Political Horizons for Jan. 13, 2013

Governing via the narrative

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

Among recently released correspondence detailing how LSU cut hundreds of millions from the budgets of its charity hospitals, the big reveal is that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff routinely communicated through personal email accounts, which are harder to track for the public disclosure.

That was the big story. Also interesting is that the emails suggest the extent of efforts Jindal’s aides use to influence how the media reports the governor’s actions. Last summer’s experience with the LSU health-care cuts may be good to keep in mind when reading quotes about how Jindal’s tax overhaul proposal, announced last week, really is good for the poor and middle class.

LSU teaches a class on the technical details of running political campaigns. A group of political professionals show how to create and nurture what they call a “narrative.” During campaigns, a story line is carefully constructed and zealously tended, the teachers say. Operatives push their “narrative” to ensure independent reporters — called “free media” — reinforce in their articles the themes that are in the campaign’s paid advertising.

The LSU hospital emails indicate that tactics normally reserved for political campaigns are being used to govern. Administration communications personnel, for instance, draft “quotes” for LSU board members, executives and even for House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, according to the emails.

There’s correspondence that outlines the back-and-forth among officials on how to respond to individual reporters and about “trying to reframe the press on a new message,” as LSU’s Frank Opelka put it in a Sept. 15 email to Bruce Greenstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

As head of the LSU public hospitals, Opelka runs an agency that pursues different — and often competing — objectives than Greenstein’s shop. LSU provides health care to the poor and uninsured. DHH pays for it.

Opelka suggested the theme for the budget slashing: “It is time for partnerships” because LSU needs “to think beyond cut by cut.”

Similarly, at their first meeting in charge, the new leaders of the Louisiana Board of Regents last week urged State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell to change his narrative and stop talking about the $625 million in Jindal-inspired budget cuts colleges and universities have absorbed since 2008.

Baton Rouge Community College lost 50 percent of its state funding during the past four years, he said. LSU-Baton Rouge lost 44 percent of its state funding; the University of New Orleans is down 48 percent; and Southern University Baton Rouge is off by 47 percent, according to Purcell’s accounting.

“We need you to help us,” Purcell told the Regents, the gubernatorial appointees (mostly) who oversee policy for the state’s colleges and universities.

“We really need to get off what’s happened in the last four years,” responded Regents Vice Chairman Joseph Wiley, of Gonzales.

Jindal’s spokesman, Kyle Plotkin, the head of Jindal’s communications team, said in an interview later: “Simply talking about funding levels is not a vision.”

Jindal gave public university executives the ability to raise tuition — in return for achieving measurable outcomes — without having to go through the Louisiana Legislature, Plotkin said. Officials now are seeking even greater autonomy to set the price of a college education, such as the ability to charge more for high-demand programs.

“In terms of communications strategy,” Plotkin says, “how they message their reductions is going to influence the Legislature. And right now the way they are discussing it hurts their ability to get more flexibility.”

Since Jindal took office in January 2008, the number of classified and unclassified workers employed by state government has dropped about 20 percent to 74,355, according to a December 2012 report by the state Department of Civil Service. During the same four-year comparison, however, the number of “public relations” personnel employed by state government increased about 7 percent to 153, Civil Service shows.

That tally is not precise, however, because some of the Jindal administration’s highest profile spokesmen ­— Plotkin, for instance, and his assistant, Aaron Baer ­— are listed at Civil Service as “directors.”

“Our goal is simple,” Plotkin said. “It’s to actively communicate in all different mediums the governor’s agenda.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email mballard@theadvocate.com.