Democratic State Senator Claire Celsi has extensive experience in the public relations field. -promoted by Laura Belin
As ranking member of the Iowa Senate’s Administration and Regulation Appropriations Subcommittee, I was supposed to be privy to budget requests from state agencies, including the governor’s office. Unfortunately, Governor Kim Reynolds refused our committee’s request to appear in person to explain why they were requesting a 10 percent increase in their budget while requesting a “status quo” budget from all other state departments.
Since our committee’s process was prematurely cut short by Committee Chair Representative John Landon, I attempted to go through staff back channels to find out what the $200,000 increase would be used for. I was told that Reynolds had requested the hiring of two analysts, one for tax policy and one for healthcare policy. I thought those were perfectly reasonable requests, since both areas have been so completely botched by Republicans in the past three years. But I still wondered why no one would come to our committee meeting to explain the request.
Now we have the answer. Turns out, the governor is planning to hire a “public relations manager.” I have some advice for the new staff member, based on my years of experience in public relations, brand management and communications. Some of my former clients were state agencies, so I know the demands they will be facing.
1. Demand a place at the table. This is a tall order. I’m asking you to get into the decision making loop in the governor’s office. It may take a while to earn the trust of the governor and her chief of staff, but they need a seasoned PR professional to advise them. Speak up! You can help keep them from making so many unforced errors.
2. Tell the truth. This used to be a no-brainer for all government communications professionals. In the past, many professional communicators have resigned after being asked to fudge the truth. I hope you hold yourself to this high standard. Your truth-impaired boss might need a refresher course.
3. Be transparent. If you make a mistake, own up to it. A few months back when Governor Reynolds missed the deadline to inform a judge of their appointment to the bench in a timely manner, the Governor tried to cover it up, instead of just admitting she made a mistake. Please stand up for transparency in all situations.
4. Reinstitute weekly news conferences. As someone who has helped leaders prepare for a tough confrontation with the press, I can tell you that delaying the grilling is never a good idea. When you don’t tell your side of the story in a timely manner, misinformation and innuendo fill the vacuum. It’s hard to come back and correct the record later.
5. Include all reporters. While we are talking about press conferences, please include all press in your media outreach. It’s silly to physically exclude reporters from the premises, especially when it’s so easy to get the information from other sources. It also makes the governor look really petty to include non-traditional media (bloggers) from her own party and exclude bloggers from the other party.
6. Be more responsive. Since your salary is paid for by the taxpayer, you have a duty to be more responsive to inquiries and requests from the public. Never forget that you are a public servant.
7. Don’t ignore legislators. The governor is on the record as being available to meet with Democratic legislators. The only problem? It appears she has not done that on several specific occasions during the last legislative session. Reynolds refused to meet with me on the issue of transgender healthcare and refused to meet with Representative John Forbes regarding medical cannabis legislation. Legislators got elected to serve their constituents, and you must respect that by giving their requests to meet top priority.
8. Don’t hide from the public. The Capitol is perfectly suited for public bill signings and other public announcements. It’s not cool to sign non-controversial bills in public and controversial bills in secret. Also, when a cabinet member visits the Capitol, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did earlier this year, it’s not a good idea to have secretive meetings with private school advocates.
9. Don’t use kids as props. During the public school funding bill signing, Reynolds used an unsuspecting group of kids touring the Capitol as props. Please be sure none of those photos are used in campaign materials–parents of those kids may not appreciate their kids’ faces on her next TV commercial.
10. Campaign on your own time. Reynolds learned from her mentor, Terry Branstad, how to use the governor’s office for highly partisan campaign-type stops to visit donors on the state’s dime. Please try to minimize the propoganda spewing out of the official office. It’s wrong to use the governor’s office to bolster the campaign arm.
My last piece of unofficial advice: try to maintain a work-life balance. There will always be more work to do – so go home, eat dinner and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a new day.
Claire Celsi is a state senator representing Senate District 21 in southwest Polk County and northwest Warren County.
Top image: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (left) and Governor Kim Reynolds in Des Moines on March 15, 2019 cropped from a photo posted on the official Facebook page for DeVos.