VOL. 9 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 20, 2016
By Andy Meek
When Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was finally ready to tell the public who he was appointing as Memphis’ next police director – the culmination of one of the most consequential decisions he’s faced so far during his more than seven months in office – the first word of that choice didn't come via a news outlet. Nor did the mayor call a press conference, at least not immediately.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
To get the word out on Sunday, Aug. 7, that Strickland was naming interim director Michael Rallings as the permanent head of the Memphis Police Department, the city's deputy communications director Kyle Veazey – who’d been waiting for the green light that afternoon – simply posted the news to Facebook. In quick succession, he then did the same on Twitter, sent an email to the mayor’s public distribution list and to an email list of media contacts, then posted the news to the social network Nextdoor.
Media coverage, of course, quickly followed. And a press conference was set for the next day.
It was a key appointment for Strickland, whose candidacy last year was built in large part around an anti-crime platform. The rollout of the announcement, though, and the way the administration essentially scooped the reporters who’d been chasing the news, underlined another fundamental truth about the administration.
A few truths, actually. It was another reminder, as if one was even needed, that digital platforms and social networks increasingly function as important news distribution vehicles now. And for everyone from celebrities to politicians like Strickland, they represent effectively a microphone that allows a message to be carried, unfiltered, directly to an audience, while traditional media catches up.
Indeed, Veazey said the mayor’s communications efforts, which include a robust presence across the major social networks, are a function of Strickland wanting to reach people “where they already are.” He doesn’t have to say it, but one place they increasingly aren’t is logged on to newspaper websites or sitting in front of TV screens to watch a news broadcast.
It’s also why, every Friday, the mayor sends a detailed weekly update to constituents in the form of an email – running down a list of accomplishments from the week, why actions were taken, events that were held and places the mayor visited around the city, and more. Veazey said the coming weeks will also see the launch of Twitter and Facebook accounts for the city of Memphis.
Natalie Lieberman, a designer with her own interior design service and consulting shop called Collect + Curate, said she appreciates the administration’s approach to things like that.
“This year I've certainly paid more attention to politics and the state of our city and country,” she said. “(The mayor) seems less defensive and more accessible and responsive than some of his predecessors, which is refreshing.”
That’s the kind of response the administration is looking for as a result of its direct-to-the-public communication efforts.
“I think what’s been missing in city government for a while is taking people inside the process and saying these are the challenges we’re facing and that we’re looking at all these different options to try to work through these issues,” said Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer. “It helps create some investment from the public. If they know people are dedicated and working on these challenges, and they get to be part of it, it makes them more invested.”
Strickland tapped both Madden and Veazey to help him pursue those objectives because of their media industry experience. Madden previously worked for WMC-TV for 17 years, anchoring the station’s 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts when she was hired by the mayor late last year. Veazey, meanwhile, was formerly a political reporter for The Commercial Appeal.
NEW REGIME, NEW MESSAGE
The approach they’re helping the mayor implement is a small part of a larger whole.
The Strickland administration already has taken enough actions big and small to form a composite that can be parsed for a sense of how the mayor and his team regard things like transparency and communications with the public. So far, that approach has called for more openness about the process of governing, while holding back on some matters in the public interest in a way that effectively marks the boundary of how far the administration’s commitment to transparency extends.
The Rallings announcement is an example of the former. The administration’s opposition toward the release of the names of everyone who applied this summer for that job is an example of the latter.
The city paid the International Association of Chiefs of Police $40,000 to conduct a search for police director candidates and to send a list of recommended finalists to Strickland for consideration.
The Commercial Appeal filed a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court seeking the disclosure of everyone who applied for the position, in addition to the six finalists the administration disclosed. The city responded that IACP’s full list represented “proprietary information,” and Strickland has said disclosing the names of all who applied could have a chilling effect on getting the best candidates for the job because some applicants would not want their current employers to know they were looking for a new job.
Chancellor Walter Evans was not swayed by that argument and on July 29 ordered the city or the IACP to make public the full list. Hours after that order, the city announced it was appealing the ruling.
Evans found that the IACP “performed a critical function typically performed by government” and was paid with public funds. His ruling relied on the state’s public records act, which reads, in part: “records, employment, applications, credentials and similar documents obtained by any person in conjunction with an employment search for a director of schools or any chief public administrative officer shall at all times, during business hours, be open for personal inspection by any citizens of Tennessee.”
“What we’ve said is you cannot contract away the people’s right to know what’s going on in City Hall,” said Commercial Appeal editor Louis Graham. “This was not about who they were picking. It was entirely about our legal right to know who had applied and independently review the applicants and the process. It’s really disappointing I’m having to spend so much money to find out what should be readily available to any taxpayer.”
From the city’s perspective, the police director search was actually a model of what it sees as full transparency. In other words, it asked IACP for a list, and the city made that list public.
In response to the legal action to force IACP to release all the names, Madden said: “I also think it’s an issue of – so does that mean every single vendor the city does business with, does that mean all media has access to that vendor’s entire stash of records?”
The city has taken a similar stance when it comes to the technology that lets Memphis police essentially eavesdrop on cell phone communications. As a mayoral candidate, Strickland said he would be more open about details of the city’s use of that capability – which relies on a device called StingRays sold by Florida-based Harris Corp., with which the city has contracted.
Strickland’s position now is that he didn’t know as a candidate that the city is contractually bound not to disclose specific details about the arrangement or usage of the devices. But Madden says there’s no contradiction with that and the administration’s goal of broad transparency.
“I think when it comes to law enforcement and the tools they use, it’s different,” she said. “We don’t know everything the United States uses to track terrorists. I just think you’re talking about a different level. If it was a contract in public works or engineering or communications, then I think you’d have a good argument there.”
Speaking of law enforcement, the city a few months ago unveiled its partnership with the social media service Nextdoor to better communicate with residents down to specific neighborhoods.
It’s a partnership police in other cities and towns have used. Police will communicate online with homeowners and residents on the various NextDoor networks about recent incidents, traffic advisories and provide general tips, information that can be shared.
The city also communicates neighborhood-specific information beyond police-related matters. It is putting up things like upcoming development proposals and zoning matters on Nextdoor, too.
On Aug. 2, for example, the city-county Office of Planning and Development posted details about the 12-item agenda for the Sept. 8 meeting of the Land Use Control Board. Veazey is the Nextdoor administrator for the city and says that the effort there, in many ways, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”
More than seven months into his first year as Memphis mayor, Jim Strickland has shown how he will be transparent in communicating to the public. Announcements will go straight to citizens via social media channels as well as media outlets; press conferences will be more strategic; and media access to his administration will be scheduled, not automatically open.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
TRANSPARENCY WITH RESTRICTIONS
The mayor’s weekly email he sent out on July 29, meanwhile, shows how the administration continues to grapple with defining an approach and a philosophy around transparency.
In that email, the mayor noted how it was now a policy that media must schedule appointments to interview city employees through the city’s communications office, as opposed to reaching out to employees directly. Temporarily, media was also required to be escorted to interviews inside City Hall, though that was eventually reversed.
Part of that shift in policy also included warnings for city employees not to communicate with the press without permission, or face consequences that could include termination.
“Our administration is committed to communication and transparency more than any local government entity in recent history,” Strickland’s email reads.
“My administration respects the media. If we’re available, we’re glad to do interviews. That’s been our stance since New Year’s Day, and it will continue to be our stance moving forward. That said, the employees who are paid by your tax dollars to focus on the core services of our city deserve to be able to do their jobs without interruption. We have had instances of reporters showing up in offices unannounced.
“This isn’t good for the work our employees are doing, and it doesn’t help our shared goal of having accurate, contextual information reported in the media. Plus, it’s not how the general public is treated at City Hall.”
Madden said a couple of different things are being addressed here.
“We have that protocol to make appointments to see division directors, because I think what’s happened in the past is you’ve had people talking but not necessarily on the same page,” she said. “We’re city government, so we want to make sure we’re putting forth a message to the public through media that is a coherent, clear, concise message. And when it comes to access in the building – I would challenge any reporter to try to go around to any public institution without an appointment. You just can’t disrupt people who are trying to conduct the business of the day.”
It’s “unfortunate,” said Veazey, that a “fairly standard policy” to request appointments has been included in a conversation about transparency.
Graham, though, questioned why the centralization of messaging and putting new limits on access within the building is occurring at the same time the administration has put an emphasis on direct communication with the public.
“I think it makes our job harder,” Graham said. “When you limit access, when you try to control the message or centralize the message, it inhibits our ability to do our job well. And you have to wonder why they’re doing it. They have all these channels that they can speak directly to constituents with, but why do they need to do that at the same time they’re trying to limit our access to talk to people who are in the know at City Hall?
“It’s troubling, when you see them instituting these policies,” Graham said. “Why are they making this so difficult, when the mayor ran on a platform of accountability and transparency?”
“Difficult,” as opposed to impossible, being the operative word. The administration says this is all a process question, that it’s just a more streamlined, centralized way of getting reporters what they need.
“I think the new administration is working to set boundaries,” said WMC Action News 5 news director Tammy Philips. “They have a job to do. But so do we. The idea of having the media escorted around City Hall sent the wrong message. I'm glad the mayor's administration decided to change that policy. Working with the appointments system is fine, as long as we are granted (the) appointment when we request them.
“Making an announcement in a (email) newsletter won't change our duty to go after a story. The announcement is the first layer of the story. It's a press conference on paper. The announcement is just the beginning of the story. The way we find stories is constantly evolving. This is just another example of that.”
Transparency, she adds, is an “incredible” idea.
“But defining it is the hard part.”