PR Stories from Hell

The first rule of PR is, don’t lie to your PR person.
The second rule of PR is, don’t lie to your PR person.

The other day was the birthday of a journalist I know and am friends with. I like him well enough, he’s a nice guy but I gotta admit his name still strikes horror into my heart. Abject horror.

Several years ago I was a communications director for a US Senate campaign. My candidate had started as a Democrat but then switched to the GOP and went back. While a member of the Republican party, he donated a lot of money.

I was having a rough day anyway. We had gone to an event and he and one of the GOP candidates for the seat showed up at the same time and press was there to capture it all. The two men embraced, I tried to get between them but I am 5’6″ and they were well over 6′. Wasn’t gonna make a difference. A prominent political paper ran a photo of it on the front page. Not the image you want when voters are unclear about what party you are in. The second bad news was that a typo in an email had gotten us into another publication. Truth be told my first thought was ‘wow, if I knew it was that easy to get into that pub, I would have done it months ago!’ (we also had a name recognition problem) but my fellow staffers were not so pleased and rode me all day.

At the end of the day, things were looking up. A pleasant reporter from a TV station, I think you already know it’s my friend, came in and did what seemed like a reasonable interview and looked to be a good thing. I was excited to watch it when it came one.

Everyone whose day is going well, step forward. Not so fast, Alyson!

The end of the interview revealed something new. The candidate had underestimated the amount he gave the GOP as a member. He told me (and provided paperwork) that it was about $70,000, which is a lot to a lot of people but it was off by a factor of ten. My friend’s segment ended with this figure $700,000. I called and asked where he got that number and ge faxed me over the paperwork. It was solid.

I was just floored by this mistake or lie or whatever.

And the final rule of PR, if this is your first campaign you have to not lie to your press person.

The art of the possible

Another broken record appeal

I complain about Washington, DC. The DC Metro sucks. The infrastructure is falling to pieces. The state of what we call political discourse makes me want to poke my own eyes out. Oh, and had to go to the CVS and some creepy, smelly guy stood way too close to me and was growling. Dude, can’t a girl get some space? Last point, we had a scary earthquake and now a crazy hurricane is coming our way. What next? Frogs? Locusts? Glenn Beck will hold another crazy fest on the mall and his minions will take over my favorite coffee place and I’ll have to get my caffeine at the totally ghetto Starbucks that frequently runs out of coffee?

Rant mode over.

And then, just when I think the best plan is to move to a farm in Wyoming, something spectacular happens; I look at the Capitol Building and all that negativity just vanishes. I remain in awe of the amazing thing we have created here. When we tear each other down by attacking each other’s patriotism or motives, we don’t just hurt our political opponents but we diminish our creation and ourselves.
My entree into this glorious world of campaigns and politics happened when I was eight. Funny story: I was at the Hawk n’ Dove waiting for a friend and the manager, Paul, asked me about this. I replied that I had started by volunteering to unseat the evil Conservative Party (not GOP, mind you, but Conservative) from the first district of New York — Bill Carney. The man next to me said, “That’s me.” — He proved it by showing me his Congressional ID. Open mouth, insert foot. We are now friends.

When I was eight, I canvassed, I handed out flyers, I stuffed envelopes. On election night as we watched the returns, the areas I canvassed had a higher turnout for our candidate, George Hochbrukner (a hard name to spell but a great one to remember!) than other areas and I was sure that was because of my hard work. He lost. He lost the next election and was elected to Congress only when Bill retired. He quit when he could no longer go for a beer and have a conversation with his opponent. It wasn’t fun anymore. He thinks civility in this business is a pipe dream.

I don’t believe that. When I worked in the Senate, I felt a bond with all over staffers. We all were there, working crazy hours for next to no pay because we believed we could make a difference. The real difference between the two parties is not that one is more patriotic than they other or believes more in God. We all want to get to the same place, we just have different paths to get there.

I read on Conservapedia that Jefferson Smith from “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” was a Democrat. They also see it as demonizing Republicans. I don’t believe that. I refuse to believe that this movie was a partisan statement. It was a call to remember that politics really is the art of the possible.

My best moment at work

My favorite moment at work

A few years ago I worked on Capitol Hill for a Member of Congress. As a press secretary for a busy freshman member, my life revolved around the office. My days would start between 7:00-7:30 (time I got into the office, not wake up time) and I was often there until late into the evening. Weekend work was common and the only time my blackberry was off was when I accidentally dropped it into the washing machine inside a pair of jeans. One evening, my boss approached me and told me I was not permitted to write press releases when I was in the office. That task was to be done ‘on (my) own time.’ I didn’t ask when this mythical ‘personal time’ was — my average work day was over 10-12 hours but I agreed. That night I was a bitter, bitter person. I had the Daily Show on, my cat was begging for attention and I had a press release on military appropriations to write. I am not even sure bitter adequately describes how I was feeling.

Long hours, low pay and almost no positive feedback, sounds like a recipe for an awful job, right? I have never been happier at work. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me. I was part of something that could make the world better. It was a great feeling.

Now, I am also a huge dork. I LOVED the weekly press secretary meetings and policy briefings. Loved getting talking points from the leadership offices. My boss was a hard taskmaster but he worked just as hard as his staff. I feel like the time I spent in that office was exactly like what Crash Davis talked about when he spoke of going to ‘the show.’ Working in Congress is the political equivalent of going to the show in baseball.

My favorite moment in my career came that year. It was a Saturday. Our work day started at the regular time. The House of Representatives had taken up debate on reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It was a bad bill. The reforms it made went too far. I did think my boss should NOT vote for it. The Legislative Director disagreed. We argued. We yelled. He felt that a vote against the bill would make our boss look weak on terrorism. I felt our boss had enough street cred, for lack of a better term, to be able to take a principled stand. When he went to the floor, we didn’t know where he would finally come down on the issue. I wrote press releases for both a yes and a no vote.

Then a quote came to me; “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither” — Benjamin Franklin. The LD told me to text our boss. I did and he repeated that line on the floor of the House. He voted against the bill. It passed but when I left the office that night — after 1:00 am, I felt I had fought the good fight. I didn’t win that fight but as they said in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” the only flights worth fighting are the losing ones. To date, that is the most proud moment of my career.

Prayers for Norway

It is impossible (for me anyway) to not be deeply saddened by what has happened in Norway. Seeing the people there come together to mourn this tragedy is a bright spot (that they’re coming together, not that they are in mourning) but it doesn’t erase what has happened.

What seems like a thousand years ago, I worked on a trip for President Clinton to Norway. That trip has been on my mind a lot this week — for some obvious reasons and some not. (You can read about the visit here:

President Clinton went to Oslo for a commemoration ceremony for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. At the ceremony he gave a speech (I was not in the room but in the press filing center) about the genetic similarities we all share. The reason DNA can be used with such precision is not because we are so different but because we are so very similar. It may seem like an odd thing to bring up now but watching the events in Norway unfold and learning more about the motivations, I think it is a point worth thinking about. Cultural diversity is something to cherish, not fear but once we start dividing ourselves — as we seem to want to do — into categories of who is good vs. evil we do ourselves a great disservice.

One of my favorite courses from college was on William Blake’s “Innocence and Experience.” His poems reflect an idea that neither can exist alone and in that vein, I think our cultural differences and biological similarities complement each other. We are all unique but we are all the same. We are individuals but we need each other.

It is hard to watch all of this play out in the city that hosts the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony but what is more frightening is how much some of want to use our differences as an excuse for violence. When those differences come from religion, it is even more sad. Religion (as someone not at all religious) should bring people comfort and community, not death and hate. (I do wonder if Congressman Peter King will hold hearings on “radial Christians” as he did recently about “radical Muslims” but somehow I doubt it.)

My thoughts and condolences are with the people of Norway.