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New spokesman might have helped Pugh 'change narrative.' Instead, another bad media moment for city

You have to wonder when the unforced messaging errors at City Hall are going to stop.

Latest case in point: The mayor’s news conference Wednesday during which she introduced a new spokesman, Darryl Strange, a former city policeman.

In case you missed Ian Duncan’s article in The Baltimore Sun about it, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh introduced Strange as her new spokesman in the morning and then as her former spokesman late in the day after his abrupt resignation.

The resignation followed The Sun’s asking about three lawsuits during Strange’s five years in the Baltimore Police Department from 2006 to 2011. Settling the lawsuits cost Baltimore city taxpayers nearly $80,000, according to city and court records Duncan cited.

Pugh said that Strange was still being vetted when she announced his hiring.

“As anyone who applies to work at City Hall, and particularly in a senior role, there is an extensive vetting process that takes time to complete,” Pugh said in a statement by way of explanation.

So, if that’s true, why announce his hiring at a news conference? If he has not been fully vetted, why are you putting him out there before the press as your new spokesman?

That’s issue one in terms of what you need to do before you hold a news conference announcing anything. That is pretty basic public relations and marketing in any field. It is especially true in politics, where you try to never put yourself behind a podium where you might be asked a question you do not know the answer to.

Greg Tucker, a strategic adviser to the mayor, said Thursday that even though the vetting process had not been completed, introducing Strange to the press was considered acceptable because he had been working in government communications at what Tucker described as a senior level, at a state agency.

But there is also an issue of optics. Why would you make a former Baltimore City police officer your spokesman at this point in time?

I am talking about the recently concluded Gun Trace Task Force trial in which federal prosecutors exposed one of the worst corruption cases in the city’s police history. If you didn’t read the many articles in The Sun, maybe you saw the one in The New York Times that referred to the BPD as “grotesquely corrupt.”

So, why have a former police officer be the face of your administration and the city right now? Why remind the public of the shame that members of the Gun Trace Task Force — and every member of the BPD who knew about their crimes and said or did nothing for all those years — have brought to this city?

“That’s a stretch,” Tucker said when asked the question. “That’s guilt by association, and that can’t be. That’s a disservice to a lot of very dedicated officers.”

That might be, but associations are exactly what people make when they are confronted with a visual tableau. That’s part of what optics are. If you don’t want citizens thinking of the crimes of the BPD, don’t pick a former police officer to be representing the city — as honest as she or he might be.

But then, you pick a guy who has cost the city nearly $80,000 in settlements. And that’s another sore spot with taxpaying citizens: these settlements of lawsuits against the police, which media organizations, by the way, had to fight to make public.

Tucker said he is confident that the city’s ongoing vetting process would have found what Duncan did about the lawsuits.

Maybe so, but what Pugh described as the city’s “extensive vetting process” didn’t. And Duncan did in just a few hours after Pugh announced Strange as her new spokesman.

(And Duncan did it, by the way, using Case Search, the database from which the names of police officers were recently removed — and then reinstated. The Sun discovered the removal of the names and led the fight to get the State Judiciary to restore officers’ names for just such searches.)

Pugh has been talking publicly since last fall about changing the narrative of Baltimore. On at least one occasion, she linked it to challenging the media.

“Change the narrative. Challenge the media,” she is quoted as saying during a meeting of business and civic leaders.

She has complained more than once about media’s not being positive enough.

But how can the media be positive about what happened at the news conference Wednesday? The party serving the interests of the citizens of Baltimore was the media, not the mayor’s office. Team Pugh had simply not done its job in vetting Strange.

And that’s also part of the narrative problem here.

The negative narrative that the mayor regularly talks about is the one that says Baltimore is one of the nation’s most dangerous cities because of the crime — particularly the record-setting number of homicides last year.

But there is another part of the big, fat, negative narrative that is keeping some people and businesses from coming here, while leading others to flee. And that narrative says city government is messed up. It isn’t just that citizens and businesses pay high taxes and get erratic to bad services in return.

It involves: schools without heat for our children, police corruption, astronomically incorrect water bills that seem impossible to resolve, roads that drive like The Baja, trash and rodents that seem to be everywhere. And a City Hall and city council leadership that seem wedded to the status quo and happiest when they can operate behind closed doors.

This narrative was the one Laura Ingraham, the gut-punching Fox News host, invoked in an on-air spat with Pugh March 7 when she blamed the “liberals” who have been running Baltimore for its problems.

I thought going on that show with a media-skilled right-wing ideologue like Ingraham was another mistake.

There have too many of them, like Pugh saying she didn’t have time to closely follow the Gun Trace Task Force trial, which was blowing many minds with its jaw-dropping levels of corruption.

In fairness, Pugh inherited a pile of problems when she was sworn in. And when troubles reach a certain point, they tend to compound seemingly on their own.

But if the mayor wants to change the narrative for this city, it is time for her to work with the media — not try to make it a scapegoat.

And she is going to have to tighten up and batten down her own media. She needs to get better — lots better. If people are assigned to vet someone like Strange and they drag their feet, the mayor needs to get better people. She’s the one who looked foolish Wednesday at the news conference.

And if the mayor thinks she can just show up at a news conference and wing it, she has to lose that thought — now. Those days are gone. We can’t afford a mayor or a City Hall that thinks it can run on automatic pilot.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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