Document Lays Out Strategy To Soften Media Coverage Of Mayor, City
By JEFFREY B. COHEN And DANIEL E. GOREN | Courant Staff Writers
July 10, 2008
Along with more television spots highlighting the mayor's accomplishments, for people with "short attention spans."
And because the city's "worrisome" newspaper works to "sadly sell papers," Hartford needs to use its financial resources to "tell our story first and often."
Such are the keys to "Spreading the Gospel of Perez," the first bullet point in a seven-page media strategy outlined in an e-mail last year that spells out how the administration of Mayor Eddie A. Perez should cast the city and the mayor in its most favorable light.
The PowerPoint primer in good news message control, turned over as part of a freedom of information request by The Courant, was drafted in the summer of 2007. It came as Perez embarked on a bitter primary battle and just months before a state grand jury began investigating allegations of political corruption at city hall.
Its release comes in the weeks following a series of violent incidents in the city that got national, negative attention — a spotlight so harsh that outside media consultants were engaged to help soften it. .
Matt Hennessy, Perez's chief of staff, says the internal document was intended to set forth the goals of the city's communications staff in getting the administration's message across. Such documents, and their approach, are commonplace in press offices of government executives, Hennessy said.
"I don't know if the right word is message control," he said. "It's more message discipline."
Under the strategy outlined in the document, city-funded media — from a mailer that "accentuates positive stories" to government-access television programs that emphasize the mayor's accomplishments for people with "short attention spans" — are relied upon to convey a positive message about the city and the mayor, which are often viewed by the traditional media as one and the same, Hennessy said.
"It's difficult to say [if there is] a clear, bright-line division between the personal, official policy of the mayor and, quote unquote, the administration," Hennessy said. "The answer is, the media doesn't see it that way, so you wind up talking in those terms."
Perez's use of one city-funded media vehicle, the Hartford Educator, violated state election law in 2007 because public money was spent, during a campaign period, to distribute newspaper ads and inserts that contained his picture and name, according to state election officials.
He had to pay $839 in restitution.
Sarah Barr, Perez's communications director, sent the "communications presentation" as an attachment to Hennessy on June 8, 2007. The subject line of the e-mail said it was "for the staff presentation."
Hennessy said she created it at his request — an exercise he goes through each year with the city's department heads.
One key to spreading the gospel of Perez, according to the e-mail, is using the mayor's "new official headshot."
A litany of his accomplishments is succeeded by "Increased Exposure in Latino Media," touting a doubling of television and radio appearances, and "more positive cover stories" in print.
"More translated news releases means more news coverage, often word for word," it says.
Eventually come the "Goals/Challenges/Strategies."
First under that heading is The Hartford Courant.
Asked whether the city felt the need to bypass The Courant to get its message out, Hennessy said the newspaper's declining circulation in the city means it doesn't reach the residents Perez needs to reach.
Also, Hennessy said, the newspaper's "rush to become more sensational" means that the whole message doesn't get out — only the gruesome parts do.
Referring to the violent hit-and-run accident on Park Street earlier this year that left 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres paralyzed from the neck down, Hennessy said, "When we're talking about sensational issues, crime issues, it's important that we get all the facts out on the table."
Like the fact that overall crime is down, he said.
"That's a fact," he said.
Instances of serious crime in the city were down in 2007 from the prior year, although the total number of homicides in 2007 reached the second highest level since 1995.
"There are all kinds of facts, whether it be that crime is down, that we've been working harder on community issues, even the simple facts that there are multiple people that called 911 after the incident [on Park Street] happened," Hennessy said.
So the challenge is, "how do you get the message out accurately with all the facts?" he said.
There's nothing new about a governmental attempt to control the message by bypassing the filter, said Marcel Dufresne, a former journalist and now an associate professor of journalism at UConn.
"It's been used successfully for several years at the national level, and now you're starting to see other organizations in this case the city of Hartford trying do to it in their own environment," he said. "The people who really feel they want to control that message and get it out unfiltered are willing to spend a lot more time, energy, and money to do that because they've realized it can be effective."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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