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How Brandon Scott skillfully used media to win the Democratic mayoral primary | COMMENTARY

Brandon Scott speaks with news media outside City Hall on May 31 as people gather to protest the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis May 25.
Brandon Scott speaks with news media outside City Hall on May 31 as people gather to protest the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis May 25. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Staying on message amid great turmoil matters. Knowing how to mix old and new media helps, too. So does being nimble enough to react quickly on-screen to changes in the culture. Those are some of the media lessons to be learned from Brandon Scott’s victory in the Baltimore mayoral race.

Mr. Scott finished strong in the final days of the campaign, overtaking Sheila Dixon in the Democratic primary for a variety of reasons. But one of the biggest was the way almost all parts of his media effort worked in tandem to offer voters a clear notion of who the candidate was and what a vote for him would mean.

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Mr. Scott did not have as heavy a TV ad presence as Mary Miller or Thiru Vignarajah, but he had a well-crafted, consistent and singular one from which his message never wavered no matter what medium it appeared.

In February, his first TV ad, “A New Way Forward," opened with the words, “I was raised literally at the corner of Cold Spring and Pimlico. Guns. Drugs. Violence. Every single night. I remember asking, ‘Why doesn’t anyone care?’ My mom said, ‘If you want it to change, you have to change it yourself.’ And that’s when I knew that I had to serve.”

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There was nothing particularly flashy about the way those words were sounded while images of row houses at night filled the screen and the sound of a police siren wailed in the background. But what tremendous verbal efficiency. In just 15 seconds, that ad totally rooted Mr. Scott in Baltimore, positioned him as an agent of change and announced his lifelong personal connection to what was clearly the top issue in the city when the ad debuted: runaway crime.

Three months later, in the final days of the election, I wrote about another television ad for Mr. Scott titled “Unity Not Division” along with an informative and engaging Facebook ad that featured him showing viewers how to fill out a mail-in ballot. The first was in reaction to the effect of COVID-19 on our lives, the second in response to serious problems with Baltimore ballots for the mail-in election. The styles of the two ads were very different. The TV ad more formal and traditional as befits the legacy medium. The latter far more casual for social media. Mr. Scott seems at ease in both styles.

When I asked Marvin James, the candidate’s campaign manager, who the person in those two ads was, he instantly replied, “That person is a son of the city, a son of Park Heights, who understands citizens in Baltimore have been disenfranchised for years."

I didn’t appreciate the resonance of Mr. James’ words with the opening of that first TV ad until I went back this week to watch the ad again.

Mr. Scott and his media team were nimble enough to address COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd on social media, in TV ads and most importantly through the candidate’s actions on the streets of Baltimore as seen on TV news during nights of peaceful protests the last two weeks. That ability to use media to respond to the pulse of the city and nation also helped separate Mr. Scott from the other candidates. But even as he adapted to changes in the city and larger culture, he never got off message as a son of Baltimore. That’s the kind of campaign discipline no other candidate could match.

One other thing to note from that first ad is the way it planted seeds of candidate identity with words that would be amplified through the coming months of the campaign. The keywords were “care” and “serve.” Care suggests empathy and concern. Serve evokes an image of a leader who sees herself or himself as a steward working for citizens rather than a wannabe autocrat like President Donald Trump.

As I have noted before, Mr. Scott’s campaign did some of its best media work in managing to use his tenure in city government as evidence of experience without letting him be stained by the corruption of City Hall.

What I realized Monday night watching a rerun of the PBS “Independent Lens" documentary “Charm City” was how much help Mr. Scott’s campaign got from that widely-praised production. The film about Baltimore citizens working against great odds to make the city better placed Mr. Scott squarely on the side of those fighting for reform from within the belly of the City Hall beast.

That’s the media image as of today anyway. Here’s hoping Mr. Scott makes it a reality if he wins in November and becomes Baltimore’s next mayor.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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