Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mayor Nutter Has a PR Problem


Image: Photo in frame from www.phila.gov, electronically modified

Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter is not having an easy go of it these days. Almost daily there are articles in the papers documenting the public outrage about the administration’s position on closing libraries, and its support of a downtown casino. The Mayor has traveled around the city getting booed at public meetings.

It is hard to believe that this is the same Michael Nutter who won decisively in the 2007 Democratic primary with 37% of the vote, beating two powerful U.S. Congressmen, a popular PA Representative, and King Midas (i.e. Tom Knox), running on a platform of reform. Early in his administration, a line of people stretched around City Hall, waiting for hours in the cold to shake the new mayor’s hand.

Things sure have changed, and the press seems to blame the mayor’s loss of public support on his policy decisions. However, I do not think that the problems in the Nutter administration have to do with policy. I think this is nothing more than a PR problem.

Months ago, I attended an informal luncheon meeting of civically engaged folks, many in the arts, for a roundtable discussion with one of Mayor Nutter’s key advisors -- now a senior City official. I won’t name names, but a pretty big player in the arts world raised her hand and asked, “In the campaign, the Mayor said he would give more money to the arts. When is he going to do it?”

The City official responded: “He already added $2 million to the Cultural Fund, didn’t you hear?”

The questioner had not heard.

The fact is, the Mayor has done an astounding amount in his first year in City Hall. To name just a few accomplishments, the Mayor has:

  • Reduced the city’s murder rate by 15%
  • Launched Philadelphia’s first 311 system, creating a one-stop customer service line for the City
  • Created an Office of Transportation, the City’s first Office of Sustainability, and re-started the City Office of Arts and Culture
  • Attracted accomplished, national figures to Philadelphia, including Managing Director Camille Barnett and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andrew Altman
  • Reformed corrupted boards and commissions like the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and empowered weakened bodies like the City Planning Commission
  • Hired the City’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, then defended that position before City Council, to save it from budget cuts
  • Found a solution for moving one of the two planned casinos from its much criticized riverfront location
  • Showed a serious focus on arts and culture, creating the Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council
  • Hired department heads who are willing to take risks and realize progressive policies, such as Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler’s parking rate policies, and Planning Director Alan Greenberger’s plans for instituting civic design review
  • Showed a focus on planning and design issues by inviting the national Mayors’ Institute on City Design to Philadelphia (they'll be here from Feb. 12th-14th)

While doing all of this, Mayor Nutter has had to work within the constraints of a City whose borrowing power was exhausted by the last administration, balancing the City’s budget in the worst economic conditions in quite some time.

However, I do not want to sound like an apologist. Certainly, for Mayor Nutter to have achieved all of those accomplishments, realizing so much of what he laid out in his campaign, and now be facing such strong public opposition, it is clear that the Mayor has made some serious mistakes.

The biggest mistake was failing to ensure that the public heard about the administration’s accomplishments. There is no time for modesty; it is the Mayor’s job to shout his achievements from the rooftops. That is how to gain public support down the line when the Mayor has to make tough decisions.

Convene some focus groups. If members of the public have not heard about some big announcement, then your PR team needs a new strategy. There are plenty of PR avenues out there that this administration has not explored. The Governor has a wonderful little email newsletter touting the achievements of the week. I cannot find a parallel for the Mayor’s Office. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The second big mistake has to do with public perception of the Mayor’s actions. All throughout the campaign, the public pleaded with the candidates to move the casinos. However, Mayor Nutter thought he would gain good will when he actually did it. There is nothing that the Mayor could do with casinos, short of trying to get rid of them, that would gain widespread, public good will. The Mayor should have let the casino operator take the spotlight on the proposed move to the Gallery at Market East, while the City took a more objective role.

Another example of this point is the Mayor’s position with libraries. Closing community libraries as a budget cutting effort was the entirely wrong approach. There is one thing that no public official should ever even consider cutting and hope to keep his or her job – libraries. There was a much better alternative.

Research shows that libraries are no longer primarily used as repositories of books, but rather as community resource centers, with internet access. The Mayor should have announced a progressive redesign of branch libraries into high-tech community resource centers, cutting down on books, while making them more in-tune with the public’s demands. The Mayor actually (eventually) changed his rhetoric to something closer to this concept, but far too late. The damage had been done.

These are just two examples of what has become a trend: Framing tough choices in a politically damaging way, while failing to properly tout the great things the administration is doing, the strides the administration has made, and the effective governing that is (finally) taking place in Philadelphia.

The Mayor has an outstanding policy team. His administration has installed top-notch people, and they have been implementing the progressive policies that Michael Nutter touted during the campaign. The Mayor is changing our city for the better, but nobody is seeing it. At the same time, he is tackling sensitive issues in the worst possible way, when there were far better, more politically palatable alternatives.

In his campaign, part of Michael Nutter’s success was in hiring some of the best political advisors out there. His campaign team forged a public image of Nutter that was forward-looking and committed to fighting corruption. It was an image that was both very smart, and incredibly human. Nutter the candidate was at every public forum, saying the right thing, with his face on TV, giving viewers a comfortable and inspiring image.

What happened? The people he hired to draft policy are the right ones. Good policies are getting made, and they are setting our city in the right direction. However, the Mayor’s image has been tainted. Mayor Nutter should look seriously at his PR team, glance back at what worked so well in the campaign, and then, as quickly as possible, work at remaking himself as the Michael Nutter that the general public once knew and loved.

1 comment:

DeWitt said...

couldn't agree more.

And I'd add a few more accomplishments to the list - Safe & Sound, MBEC, recycling and even the Big Bellies.