Mississippi officials rely on media pros to help control their message, their time

Officials rely on media professionals to help control their message, their time

jphampton@sunherald.comJuly 12, 2014 

Give Gov. Phil Bryant a stage, a microphone and a crowd, and he can go to town.

For example, just two days removed from the June 3 primary and Chris McDaniel's shock to the state's Republican system, Gov. Phil Bryant was at the Gulfport Rotary Club, joking about money with Mayor Billy Hewes III and telling the Rotarians about the opportunities he sees in the nearby port.

Afterward, when asked about the seismic election, and the death knell being sounded by pundits for Sen. Thad Cochran, Bryant didn't hesitate to weigh in.

"Those people who thought -- and there were a lot of them -- thought Ol' Thad's going to win this by a large margin, are now awake and understand it's going to take some work on their part," he said. It put Bryant on the front end of a message the Cochran campaign would use to drive a rare increase in turnout from the primary to the runoff.

It's the Bryant reporters know from his personal appearances -- approachable and talkative.

Connecting can be tough

Getting through to the governor in Jackson, though, or any state official, can be trickier. And access ranges from the accessible Bryant to Attorney General Jim Hood, who hasn't spoken to the Sun Herald directly in years and communicates mainly through email and press releases.

Jan Schaefer, Hood's communications director, said email is more efficient.

"I like it because I can respond to inquiries much quicker," she said. "For instance, if someone calls and I'm tied up in meetings all day then I have to wait to wrap up that work before I can check phone messages, return calls, and then gather information to respond. With email, I can get an inquiry and go ahead and start the information-gathering process so that by the time I wrap up my meeting I hopefully have a response ready. I also like it so I can look back and see exactly what was -- and was not -- said."

Her voice-mail message makes her preference for email clear.

Access in Bryant's office is managed by Nicole Webb, his communications director, All the major players in government have one: Laura Hipp in Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' office, Meghan Annison in the state House of Representatives, Brett Kitteridge in the State Auditor's Office, Pamela Weaver in the Secretary of State's Office.

One of their toughest jobs is managing a valuable resource, an elected official's time, and that means handling the press -- requests for interviews, questions about policies and legislation, comment or no comment on the latest rumor. Most of what people know about an official is what's in the newspaper, or on the radio or television. And that makes the communications people pretty powerful.

Just don't tell them that.

"That's funny," Hipp said at the suggestion she wields much power in Jackson. Then she laughed heartily to prove it. But there's no arguing Reeves is an important person in the halls of the Capitol. There are a limited number of ways for the media to contact him, and the easiest is through Hipp.

All of Bryant's comments to the media come from either Bryant or Webb. But she said she and Bryant agree the relationship with the media is important, even in this era of social media when an official can get the message out "in an unfiltered way." Social media, she said, does help the governor control the flow of information.

"We're always busy," she said. "So time management is always a consideration.

"He's an extremely driven and hardworking person so he dictates the schedule. He's always working so we're always working. He always does have a next meeting, a next obligation."

She said email can help her manage that schedule.

"If a member of the media wants an interview directly with the governor and they're on a tight timeline and we're not able to accommodate an interview by their deadline, email helps," she said. "They really don't want to pick my brain about what they're calling about, the want to know what he thinks."

Not a chance encounter

The personal touch has its advantages.

The day after the primary, Reeves was headed south to talk to the Gulf Coast Business Council. Obviously, he had something to say besides the standard legislative update that was on the council's agenda.

But a reporter showing up would have been a long shot on the morning after an election that lasted past midnight. So Hipp gave a little nudge over the phone.

And Reeves got a chance to reiterate his support for Cochran, something he clearly wanted to do a day after Cochran's stinging second-place showing in the primary. And the reporter got an interview on a day not a lot of politicians were raising their hands to talk.

Both the reporter and the media professional win.

And that's the way Hipp would rather have it, putting reporters in contact with her boss.

"I'm the former reporter who doesn't like to be quoted," she said. "I think both of our approaches is to try to get the public the answers, the right answers, as quick as we can. I know from my experience as a reporter I always appreciated as fast a turnaround as I could get."

She said her background in print journalism -- she worked at newspapers in Texas and at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger -- left her with a preference for that medium.

"I like print journalism," she said. "Because you can think (before answering questions)."

It helps to have a boss who's as open as Reeves.

"Whenever he travels to different towns in Mississippi … he likes to communicate with as many people as he can," Hipp said. "And that means touching base with the media.

"Let the people know he's working, trying to do what he'd promised them he'd do when he was on the campaign trail."

Bryant's office has always operated that way as well. His media relations people -- Webb and Knox Graham -- prefer to pass along a question to the governor and pass his answer back to you. The same is true of Auditor Stacey Pickering. Kittredge, Pickering's communications director, has been helpful even during a fairly contentious court battle over state Department of Marine Resources records that involved the Auditor's Office and the Attorney General's Office.

The awkward moment

Melissa Scallan didn't get much of a honeymoon in her new job. And she said she wasn't looking to leave the Sun Herald when a friend told her about a communications job at the DMR.

At least she knew what she was getting into, thanks to her ringside seat for the paper's battles with the only state agency headquartered on the Coast.

"It wasn't the best of times but it wasn't the worst, either," she said. One of the biggest storms had passed. Longtime Executive Director Bill Walker had been fired a few months earlier and replaced by Jamie Miller, who was tasked with restoring the agency's image. Walker has since been sentenced to five years in federal prison for crimes at the DMR.

Dealing with the fallout from the DMR scandal isn't even close to being her toughest job, she said.

"It's when a person dies," she said. "I had been here a few weeks and there was a young man out on a boat having fun with his friends and he slipped off the boat and drowned."

She said when reporters call with questions about agency actions -- such as its increasingly expensive contract with accountancy firm Horne LLC -- there is paperwork to help make sense of the situation.

"But when a child dies, there is no explanation," she said. "People always want to know why and there is no reason why. All there is is an opportunity to tell people how to be safe."

The biggest job

No one has more officials to take care of than Meg Annison.

"My position is pretty unique because I work for all 122 members," said the information officer of the state House of Representatives. "So that's fun -- working with the different personalities, the different beliefs."

Unlike the others, her job is nonpartisan. And one of the most important parts is sending out a weekly report that recaps what the House has done. If you've seen a photo in your paper of a young man or young lady who's served as a page or been to the House in some other role, thank Annison.

"I make a big point … to try to write as basically as possible so the members can take home information to their local newspapers and Tweet with their own opinions -- you know, make it their own," she said. And she has answers for reporters baffled by the legislative process.

"I feel like you're pretty accessible and we're pretty accessible."

The Sun Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service