Spinning the Schools
So you're new Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and your reputation, the mayor's political future and, indeed, the success of more than 50,000 students are riding on your ability to fix the public schools. What are you going to do to ensure you look good?
You bring in the professional spinners.
That's what Rhee did this week when she hired New Future Communications to a three-month contract to overhaul the school system's communications office.
As with the system at large, reforming the communications office will be no easy feat. In past years, that department has developed a reputation as a sluggish, defensive bunker where requests for information go to die.
Shortly after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) downgraded the Board of Education and took control of the system in June, he dispatched an aide, Mafara Hobson, to assist Rhee. But now Rhee has added a more sophisticated layer of expertise to her publicity arm.
New Future, based in Washington, is the creation of Jamal Simmons, a national political media consultant who has worked on the campaigns of Wesley Clark and Al Gore. He was Gore's Florida spokesman during the recount battle of the 2000 election.
Simmons also happens to be a former classmate of Rhee's during their days at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government a decade ago.
Simmons said in a recent interview that he was friendly with Rhee during their graduate student days but had not spoken with her in years. When Fenty hired her in June, Simmons said, he emailed her to congratulate her and offer his company's assistance. It didn't take long for her to come calling.
"We were hired to provide strategic counsel and daily support to the chancellor," Simmons said. "Part of that helping is to figure out how to reorganize the communications department and to make sure we accomplish the goals of the new administrator.
"A big issue here is how to continue to show people progress is being made along the way. The mayor has been pretty clear and the chancellor has been clear that they want to keep the public updated on what is happening."
Notably, New Future has never worked for a school system before, mostly focusing on politics.
Simmons described ramping up the energy of the school communications staff to match that of the mayor's office. He envisions an office that does not wait for reporters to call in but rather highlights important policy initiatives as they are implemented.
Expect Simmons, and his partner Bill Buck, to be heavily involved in a search for a new, full-time school spokesperson, even though he declined to comment on whether such a search would take place.
"What [Rhee] is trying to do is a more activist media department," he said, "not really a typical government office where they get a request and answer it, but one that will be more proactive."
Of course, there is a fine line between releasing information to reporters -- and the public -- and spinning it to highlight only the good news. In New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) took over the schools in 2002, parents and reporters have complained that the mayor's communications office selectively releases information and routinely fails to respond to requests for public information.
Simmons said his charge is to get information out -- good or bad.
"We want to make sure the community is aware of progress, and also places were we still have work to do," he said. "We're committed to letting people know where we're falling short."
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