Masters of the Message: Public Policy Public Relations

Masters of the Message Public policy is their game, winning votes to pass (or kill) legislation is their aim By Linda Kleindienst Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine


They’re hired guns, put on the payroll to help sway opinion. An elite few, their specialty is public policy, and they’re called into the fray as votes and money hang in the balance while the Florida Legislature is in session.

Unlike the lobbyists who jam legislators’ offices and Capitol hallways, these public relations specialists don’t make direct contact with lawmakers for votes. Their specialty lies in crafting the messages designed to sway public and political opinion, building pressure on legislators to vote one way or the other on issues as diverse as workers’ compensation tax rates, harbormaster salaries, funding for children’s health programs and offshore oil drilling.

Most of these Tallahassee-based message masters have a journalism background, giving them the skills needed to expertly craft an appeal that will be picked up by newspapers and television, and the connections needed to gain the ear of former colleagues in newspapers, radio and TV. And most have had experience at the highest levels of state government, so they fully comprehend the politics of the legislative process and whose influence is needed to pass — or kill — a bill or appropriation.

Business kicks up at the beginning of each year, as politicians and special interests ramp up for the annual spring legislative session. That’s when they’re hired to launch a full-fledged public relations campaign on an issue or for more subtle duties, such as monitoring what the news media are covering and how reporters are handling a particular issue.

“Our target is usually the general public, to try to get reaction,” explains Cory Tilley, a onetime communications director and deputy chief of staff for former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. “Sometimes (our clients) want to influence particular decision makers, so that may involve targeted public relations in certain legislative districts. But some want to go under the radar; they don’t want public attention or to stir up the hornet’s nest.”

This small cadre of public relations professionals has become more important than ever as special interests battle to get their message out through a dwindling press corps and to a Legislature overwhelmed with budget cuts, economic gloom and the thousands of bills that course through committees during the annual two-month session.

“Good policy doesn’t always happen on the basis of what’s right,” says Ron Sachs, president of Ron Sachs Communications, the largest firm of its kind in Tallahassee and one of the biggest in Florida and the nation.

“You have to fight, have champions, show there is support, not just in the Legislature but with the public at large,” Sachs says. “You have to show the issue resonates in the press. And that’s a tough challenge today when there are so many issues competing for the attention of the press, which has been decimated.

“There are so many issues clamoring for the attention of the lawmakers,” he says. “Plus, we’re in the toughest economy of our lifetime, with the state budget in continued freefall. Winning today in that Capitol, in the legislative or executive branch, doesn’t just happen by lawyering and lobbying. The only way to win is to have the strongest hand possible, which has to include a communications component as part of the major strategy.”

Key Playmakers

Tallahassee has a wide array of public relations firms, but just a handful specialize in public policy. Fewer still devote nearly 100 percent of their business to influencing opinion on issues being decided by state and local governments or the voters.

They’re a strange mix of backgrounds, politics and personalities. At the top of the ranks are the likes of Sachs, Tilley and Allison North Jones. They’re all high-energy and passionate about their work.

Ron Sachs and his award-winning teamSachs, 59, is a former journalist and an übersalesman with a great sense of the dramatic. He worked as communications director for Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, hired to improve Chiles’ sagging poll numbers as he prepared for a tough 1994 re-election bid against Republican Jeb Bush. (Chiles won that race, albeit by one of the narrowest margins in state history.)

Now president of the firm that bears his name, Sachs is supported by a high-impact management team which includes Michelle Ubben, a more relaxed counterbalance to Sachs who handled communications for four state agencies and the Florida Senate; Ryan Banfill, whose résumé includes jobs with the Democratic offices in the state House and Senate and a stint as press secretary to Chiles; and Alia Faraj-Johnson, a onetime TV reporter who handled communications for two state agencies before becoming communications director for Bush during his second term in the Governor’s Office.

Tilley, 41, founder of CoreMessage, worked for Bush in two campaigns and when he was elected governor in 1998. But he struck out on his own halfway through Bush’s first term.

Known for his non-confrontational style, Tilley runs a smaller operation, which means he depends on Sachs and others to provide the graphics and video work for his projects.

“I remember in the 1994 campaign thinking that Ron Sachs was Enemy No. 1 because he was Lawton Chiles’ communications director,” Tilley remembers with a laugh. “He’s like your ultimate foe, and yet now we partner on projects together. Ron and I have very different personalities, so we click well.”

Allison North JonesAllison North Jones, 33, is a former member of The Tampa Tribune’s Capitol bureau, an aggressive reporter who decided she enjoyed making the news more than covering it. She now runs P3 Public Relations, a subsidiary of the Pennington Law Firm.

“I found I was enjoying the behind-the-scenes access — I liked getting to know the process, what was going into the policy and the people who were shaping it,” she says.

North Jones admits that the whirlwind reporter’s life of covering campaigns, legislative sessions (special and regular) and hurricanes had burned her out, but “I took a lot of knowledge from being a reporter to what I do now.” Perhaps most importantly, “I know what the press corps doesn’t want to hear,” she says, meaning she knows what stories to push — and what not to waste her time on.

Other veteran firms that do a substantive amount of work on state and legislative issues include SalterMitchell, run by April Salter (who also worked as a communications director for Chiles) and Peter Mitchell (a former newspaper reporter); Bascom Communications and Consulting, founded by Sarah Bascom, who served as spokeswoman for the late Jim King when he was Senate president; On3 Public Relations, run by Christina Johnson, a former Senate and Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman; and John Van Gieson, who covered state government for The Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and The Associated Press.

Delivering the Message

The stakes are never higher when there are public policy issues in play that affect people’s lives, their health care, their education, their pocketbooks. So those in charge of spreading the message pull out all the stops, organizing grassroots coalitions, developing sophisticated advertising and educational campaigns, and utilizing the modern convenience of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

When a West Palm Beach developer decided to buy the 94,000-acre Babcock Ranch in Southwest Florida — land the state had tried but failed to buy for preservation — there was plenty of potential for a community backlash. Local schoolchildren had been collecting pennies for two years to help with the purchase. Environmentalists had targeted the land as a priority for preservation.

herrle.jpgSalter was brought in on the ground floor to help sell the developer’s plan of using 20 percent of the land to build a city of 50,000 and then selling the rest to the state for preservation.

“We had to turn around people’s thinking, show them that it was going to be a net positive for a builder to buy it so he could sell it back to the state,” Salter says.

The focus was shifted away from the developer and onto the preservation plan, environmental allies were enlisted and, within a year, the idea won the support of the community, the Legislature, and the governor and Cabinet.

One of Sachs’ proudest victories also involved the environment — a constitutional amendment to provide tax breaks for large landowners willing to set aside some of their acreage for conservation.

It was a low-profile issue on the November 2008 general election ballot, and Sachs was hired only three months before voters were to decide its fate.

“We had less than 90 days to win 60 percent of the public vote,” he recalls. “The presidential candidates were spending millions; we had a budget of $300,000, and the issue was polling at 38 percent (in support).”

Sachs did it, relying on a campaign that used mostly social media — Facebook and Twitter — and humor to break through the election clutter. The amendment passed with 68 percent of the vote.

In early 2008, Tilley signed on to help Gov. Charlie Crist sell Florida voters on a change in property tax law — a complicated proposal that, in part, raised the state’s homestead exemption. It was the first time constitutional amendments were required to pass by a 60 percent margin — and there wasn’t much money available because the presidential candidates were soaking it up.

A decision was made to focus on earned media, having Crist appear with homeowners in different regions of the state and simply tell the story of how their situation would improve with passage of the constitutional amendment. At every stop, there were print, TV and radio reporters.

“We tried to put it in simple terms,” Tilley says. “‘This is the Smith family, and this is how they would benefit from passage.’ It was a pretty effective campaign.”

The amendment passed with 64.4 percent.

Even in defeat, however, there is often some sense of victory.

In 2002, Tilley worked to kill a constitutional amendment to limit class sizes in public schools. The concern by some, including then-Gov. Bush, was that the amendment would cost the state too much money to strictly adhere to the classroom caps.

“We lost the class-size initiative, but I’ll openly admit it’s one of our successes,” Tilley contends. “It started with about an 80 percent approval rating. So how do you defeat it?”

Bush made his opposition a cornerstone of his re-election bid, while about $1 million was raised and poured into TV campaigns in Tampa and Jacksonville. In the final vote, the amendment passed, but with just 52.4 percent of the vote.

“To come that close was pretty effective,” Tilley says.

Sarah BascomWatching the legislative process from the outside has been a learning experience for Bascom. But she says her years on the inside have given her a sense of how best to handle a client’s interests, especially when trying to influence a vote.

“It helps us to be able to advise,” she says. “Sometimes clients come in and say they want to hire you to have a press conference, do some ads and make a lot of noise. Sometimes that formula works. Sometimes you say, ‘That may not be the right strategy. Let’s see if the membership can be swayed one way or the other just by understanding the issue.’ Sometimes going out and making a lot of noise doesn’t make the best strategy.”

Starting a Business

While North Jones was invited into her job with the law firm, the others pretty much had to start out on their own. As most small-business owners already know, that’s a commitment that takes perseverance and more than a little luck.

“You get out and think you know how to do public relations. But you don’t quite know how to run a business. You learn that as you go,” says Tilley, who decided to focus on communications because he felt there was a niche for a Republican-leaning firm in town. “A lot of it’s not rocket science, but a lot of it is challenging, just trying to manage employees and things like that.

“I’ve kept it relatively small by choice,” he says. “Even in a good economy, I don’t know if I could sleep if I had 20 employees, knowing I have to meet payroll. I have six employees now, and that’s stressful.”

Tilley took out a small loan in 2001 to get started and paid it back in the first year.

“What hits you is, you need some income coming in. It is daunting.”

Sachs’ company has 18 full-time employees and earns up to $5 million a year. But it didn’t start out that way.

“The only other business I’d ever run was a paper route, as my mother would remind me,” he says. “I always only worked for other people. But I thought I should try this.”

In early 1996, using about $30,000 in leave money he collected from leaving his state job, he rented a 300-square-foot office with three rooms. The day after he left the governor’s employ, Sachs began work in his new office. First he put his feet up on the empty receptionist’s desk; next he sat in the empty colleague’s office. Finally he went into his own office, where he played solitaire on his computer for an hour.

“Then I said, ‘What should I be doing?’” Sachs remembers. “I started to make some calls.”

Because of his background with Chiles and the state teacher’s union, his firm was viewed as a Democratic business — and lost out on some big contracts when Republicans took charge of state government in the late 1990s.

“It was like I had a neon ‘D’ on the building,” Sachs says. “Not only did I not get any business out of the Bush administration, during most of the eight years he was in office, I actually think they hoped for my professional demise.”

Yet now, much of the work he does is in concert with perceived Republican lobbying and law firms.

“The best thing we’ve done is evolve past this stereotypic profile,” Sachs says.

Spinning the Story

“When you do things in the Legislature, if you can’t believe in what you’re doing, how can you sell it?” asks John Van Gieson, a longtime newspaper reporter turned public relations specialist who at the age of 70 runs a one-man shop. “If you succeed, it’s a tremendous rush,” he says. “If you fail, it crushes you.”

Everyone in the business has pretty much the same standard — they personally believe in what they are trying to sell to the public, the Legislature and other state opinion makers.

“We pick our clients as carefully as they pick us,” Salter explains. “There are a lot of things we were asked to work on that we said no to. If people don’t feel very good about what they’re working on, they won’t do a good job — they won’t give good counsel.”

All agree: Lying isn’t in their job description. And some take great issue with the term “spinmeister,” or even associating the word “spin” with what they do.

“We take great pride in telling the truth in the most compelling way possible. That’s the challenge. It’s not twisting the truth,” says Michelle Ubben, chief operating officer of Ron Sachs Communications. “I always found the word ‘spin’ to be distasteful and inappropriate. It suggests you’re taking the truth and twisting it around to suit your or your client’s purposes. It suggests deceit. And that is not what we do.”

Sachs remembers one particular phone conversation he had with Michael Griffin when Sachs worked in the Governor’s Office and Griffin was the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.

Sachs heard a clicking sound over the phone and asked, “What was that?” Griffin replied, “I just fastened my seat belt. Spin away.”

Both laugh about it now, but Griffin says, “The thing about Ron and April (Salter) is that you knew that they were trying to champion a particular point of view, but that they would never lie to you. They earned the trust of the press corps.”

Christina JohnsonChristina Johnson, who opened her firm two years ago, believes the job of people in her position is to make sure people know the facts on a particular issue.

“It’s education, making sure your message is out,” she says. “Get the facts out, good or bad. You’ve got to be honest, got to be truthful.

“The message is the message but certainly the messenger has something to do with it,” Johnson says. “If people know they’re getting the truth, that certainly makes a difference.”

Knowing Your Stuff

The Internet has turned public-affairs PR into an around-the-clock kind of job. Stories no longer just appear in the morning edition of the paper or on the 6 p.m. news. They pop up all day long on blogs — often written by reporters sitting in committee meeting rooms — and media Web sites.

“It’s a constant challenge to monitor,” Tilley says.

And more than ever, public relations specialists need to know their facts.

“The media in this state is one of the more aggressive and talented in the nation, and they definitely keep you on your game,” North Jones says of her former colleagues. “You have to know your issue, what your message is, but also the opposition’s research. Your canned message you get to deliver once or twice. Beyond that, you have to be prepared to be on the defensive. The media in this state, despite the dwindling numbers, is just too smart to buy a canned message.”

Salter counsels clients to make their message succinct and clearly explain why an issue is important so that people understand it, care about it and are motivated to take action. She calls it the “Tell it to your mother” principle.

“A lot of things happen in the Capitol that have a huge impact on people and, if they’re not aware of it, and your message is so high-brow that they don’t get it, then a whole group of people just got screwed and didn’t know it,” Salter says. “That’s part of our job, to make sure that story is told.”