The responsibilities of a Louisiana governmental press secretary extend far beyond fielding requests from reporters. Some duties aren't in the job description, as Marsanne Golsby learned during her eight-year stint as former Gov. Mike Foster's top media liaison.
In March 1999, Greenpeace activists were shadowing Foster's every move and complaining about polluted waters along the Mississippi River, where chemical plants are as iconic as Mark Twain on a steamboat. During one protest at the Governor's Mansion, Greenpeace reps had prepared and delivered a "toxic lunch" for Foster — a meal of pan-fried catfish harvested from an allegedly tainted bayou.
With television crews in tow, the activists insisted that the meal be brought to Foster. They wanted him to eat it in front of reporters. They prodded. They pleaded. Golsby stood between them and her boss.
"Foster told me to do whatever I wanted to do," she recalls. "So I decided to pop the B.S. balloon. I stuck a fork in it."
Literally. Golsby wolfed down two mouthfuls of supposedly toxic fish while staring down the protestors. At the end of the day, the story was about Golsby — and how she didn't grow a third eye — rather than Foster's environmental policies.
Golsby, a former TV reporter in Baton Rouge, had to swallow much more than that as Foster's press secretary. On more than one occasion, she found herself walking a fine line between a duty to give the public information and affording her boss political cover. "It was never about squashing a story," she says. "It was more about giving us time to get the answers we needed. And sometimes it was about the spin."
To get a press secretary to speak so candidly on the record, you typically have to wait until they leave the bright lights of public service. While many public information officers and media affairs professionals are drawn to their jobs by a sense of patriotism or wanting to get "close to the action," they learn all too quickly that tap dancing and providing cover become just as important as writing press releases.
Which brings into question their real value to citizens — not to mention the role they play in influencing the media. To be sure, flacking for politicians has become a mini-industry in the public sector, a refuge for former reporters and campaign staffers, a training ground for managing crises by managing the flow of information. ("Flack" is part of the journalist vernacular, although reporters generally refrain from using the term in the presence of press secretaries — just as media aides toss around "hacks" to describe the press pool.) A department head without a flack nowadays is like a 4-year-old on the beach without sunscreen. And for that protection, our state officials often pay top dollar.
According to responses to two dozen public records requests filed over the past two months, Louisiana state departments and cabinet agencies will spend more than $4.4 million this year on 72 positions ranging from press secretary and public information officer to communication director and outreach coordinator. This includes departments run by statewide elected officials and all of the cabinet agencies in Gov. Bobby Jindal's executive branch.
While the average salary of the communications professionals weighs in at $61,646, salaries range from $25,000 on the low end up to six figures. The highest paid among them is Michael DiResto, assistant commissioner for policy and communications for the Division of Administration. This year he'll make $118,792.
When contacted for comment, DiResto referred to his job description, which contains a wide range of responsibilities that, in some respects, have little to do with managing requests from reporters — things like policy and research. DiResto, whose salary mirrors those of other assistant secretaries, also has an applicable background, having formerly served as a press aide to former U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge.
Only four other communications professionals pull down six-figure salaries for similar services. They include:
• Amy David, deputy commissioner of public affairs for the Insurance Department, $117,811.
• Jason Redmond, deputy state treasurer and communications director, $112,500.
• Rene Greer, director of public affairs for the Department of Education, $110,999.
• Lori Melancon, director of marketing and communications for Louisiana Economic Development, $103,768.
When it comes to total spending on flacks' salaries, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon leads the pack. He will shell out roughly $281,423 of taxpayers' money this year to support David (noted in the list above) and three other public information officers. Donelon says his department supports 271 other employees as well, adding that it has shrunk over the past five years while maintaining a monthly $1 million surplus due largely to fees paid for by the insurance industry.
He said it takes a large public information team to prepare residents for hurricane season, publish information on laws as they change and to update his department's website with relevant data. "What we regulate is very challenging, expensive and complicated," Donelon says. "It's a part of everyone's life."
The State Police probably can lay claim to being unique among the state agencies with big public information needs. The agency requires a 13-person communications staff to cover every corner of the state, including most of the 12 troops. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) has the next-largest team around. It includes seven public information officers (PIO) and one marketing specialist. DWF Secretary Robert Barham says he couldn't do his job without them, and that all of the positions are funded through self-generated revenues, such as hunting and fishing licenses.
Barham notes that each PIO specializes in a certain area — fisheries, marketing, enforcement and so on — and that all have been kept "extremely busy" in the wake of the BP oil spill, international trade fights, record flooding and devastating hurricanes. "There's no department that has been more at the forefront of these historic events than we have" he says.
Asked if he could maintain services with fewer hands, Barham fiercely defended the positions. "I'm very comfortable that it's a great value," he says. "Could we cut some? Sure. But we wouldn't have the expertise that we have now. ... That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
Author and LSU Professor Bob Mann is all too familiar with this landscape. He currently chairs LSU's Manship School of Mass Communications and directs the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. Before that, he served as communications director for Gov. Kathleen Blanco and press secretary for then-U.S. Sen. John Breaux.
When he worked for Blanco, Mann says he held regular meetings with all of the communications professionals from the various cabinet agencies. "What was kind of frustrating to me was Wildlife and Fisheries and [the Department of Transportation and Development]," he recalls. "They had five, six, seven, eight people doing media relations, and we had two people. We were drowning trying to deal with media requests coming in for the chief executive of the state and there they were. It seemed like a crazy allocation of resources for dealing with the press."
Today, Jindal's office spends $262,000 a year on four press-related positions, including a communications director (Kyle Plotkin, $90,000), deputy communications director (Aaron Baer, $72,000), press secretary (Frank Collins, $65,000) and press assistant (Greg Dupuis, $35,000).
In many ways, Jindal's team has rewritten the book on gubernatorial press relations. Jindal is tightly guarded, and one-on-one interviews are rarely granted — and never to reporters who might ask probing questions. Responses to press inquiries are terse and sometimes vague, and almost always reflect Team Jindal talking points.
Often, press conferences are announced only an hour or two in advance. Press releases often are issued for the sole purpose of critiquing published reports. It's akin to a D.C. management style that, at least at first, shook the Baton Rouge press corps to its foundation. A few stories were written about this approach when Jindal took office in 2008, but now it's just accepted as the status quo, while still drawing the quiet ire of reporters on the Capitol beat.
Plotkin provided information in a timely manner for this story and agreed to be interviewed, but said he would only discuss the governor's policies — not internal management.
Jindal's setup stands in stark contrast to the media operation of Treasurer John Kennedy's office. His press coverage is stuff of legend, largely because he and his team are skilled — and unapologetic — opportunists. They also respond quickly to reporters' requests — and, unlike Jindal, their boss is almost always available either in person or via phone, and he is always quotable. If reporters need a unique angle on a story or a critical voice on just about anything, they know they can bring a herd of sacred cows to Kennedy, who is only too willing to slaughter them.
No doubt those two styles reflect the preferences (and perhaps the relative strengths and weaknesses) of the two men. Jindal avoids the press as much as possible and is loath to face a pack of reporters. Kennedy welcomes the challenge, and the spotlight.
Redmond, deputy state treasurer and communications director for Kennedy, serves as a gatekeeper and is a favorite among the press corps. He and his boss have a knack for inserting themselves in the debates of the day. As the budget debate heated up this legislative session and lawmakers complained about fund sweeps and possible cuts, Kennedy grabbed headlines by pointing out an increase in overall salary costs.
Redmond says the strategy echoes Kennedy's willingness to work with reporters. "We often are described as an aggressive press operation, and I won't dispute that a bit," he says. "This is the information age, and information is power. But the speed and ease of access to that information by the public and the press is just as important as the information itself, and that's what we strive to provide. At the end of the day, however, any degree of message crafting or execution is pointless without a good message and especially a good messenger with vision. And all the credit there has to go to one guy and one guy only: Treasurer John Kennedy."
Obviously, every department and agency is different. That much was evident in the responses to the 24 public records requests filed in advance of this story. The lieutenant governor's office provided all information over the phone within minutes of being asked. Flacks for the Department of Revenue demanded that a request be mailed or faxed, and then requested that all information be put in a certain context. The Department of Environmental Quality requested that a form be filled out on its website. Most responded within two weeks — sooner in many cases.
Mann, a former reporter, says it's understandable that reporters sometimes become frustrated with press secretaries. He says he can see it clearly in terms of the governor's operations. "I think the problem is a lot of these people have never been journalists. They've never been on the other side," Mann says.
Roy Fletcher, a Louisiana consultant who managed part of John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, suggests that hard-nosed flacks, the kind Jindal and others employ, are simply doing their job. And a good job at that. "When I hire a press secretary, I'm looking for someone with a unique skill. That would be the ability to get along with the press," Fletcher says. "But when it comes to game time, they need to be able to push back and fight."
Fletcher says veteran hacks and flacks share a relationship that's best defined as, "You know what I'm doing and I know what you're doing; you know what I'm flacking, so let's do it."
As for the often-uneasy working relationships, reporters aren't alone in their vexation, says Jacques Berry, the press secretary for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. After following Dardenne through the state Senate and the secretary of state's office, Berry says it's still difficult to figure out what will grab the media's attention. Notably, he says he's tired of seeing solid policy stories overlooked for sexier accounts of Capitol politics. "It's a constant source of frustration seeing what's not being covered out of this office," Berry says.
Fletcher adds that some reporters arrive for an interview with their story already written. When the press secretary doesn't respond as predicted in such cases, it creates an element in the story that helps no one. "They'll go around the beanie pole to get me to say what I don't want to say," he says. "It ends up being a 'gotcha' game."
That's among the reasons why many government press teams are finding ways to circumvent the mainstream media to get information out to their stakeholders. Our public records requests revealed that statewide departments and cabinet agencies will spend more than $640,000 this year on such operations.
The Treasury Department, for example, will spend $15,000 on video productions. The Department of Agriculture will put up roughly $100,000 publishing what it calls "Market Bulletins." Outside players factor into this equation as well. Louisiana Economic Development has contracted with companies like Peter Mayer Advertising to help carry the load. (Locally, Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman has followed this trend, hiring the Ehrhardt Group to handle press inquiries.)
Despite having more than $5 million invested in press operations, flack teams seldom catch the watchful eye of legislative budget committees — despite a $211 million shortfall in the current budget year and a $303 million projected deficit for the next. Maybe that's because leges have flacks, too, both for the campaigns and for their respective legislative bodies. The campaign aides are paid by individual candidates' campaign war chests; the legislative media liaisons are paid by taxpayers.
The state Senate has communications officer Brenda Hodge, a former Baton Rouge TV reporter who earns $92,813 a year, plus two other employees who pull down a combined $68,000. The House has PIO Sheila McCant, who reaps an annual salary of $122,285 (more than any other press official reviewed for this story). Four other House communications employees collectively earn $156,872. Together, the House and Senate will spend $439,970 this year on salaries for media liaisons.
Hodge notes that legislative public information staffers do not fill the same role as their executive branch counterparts. “We do not promote any agenda,” she says. “We are non-partisan and serve individual [House and Senate] members with different philosophies and different priorities. … In the Senate my office is also responsible for the operation and maintenance of our audio visual systems that allow for the Internet broadcast of our proceedings.”
One way or another, a lot of public information gets spun before it reaches the public.
Golsby, who served as Foster's press secretary, agrees with Mann that it's an innocent part of the game — a game that has been played for centuries and will probably continue for generations. "I'm sure Hamilton did the same thing for George Washington," Mann says. "It's a little naive to expect it to be any other way."