How Not To Handle a Mildly Embarassing Story: The Mayor’s Rock Star Memo

fish-supper.jpgI would love it, frankly, if I had a staff of people who showed up everywhere I was going 30 minutes in advance to make sure I would be served lean chicken or fish, no starches or sweets, and green tea (hold the four packages of Splenda, thanks), who made sure my breath smelled minty, secured me a parking spot and a place to sit and always, always remained in my line of sight in case I wanted to shoot them a meaningful look, a look that says, “I need you. I want you. Bring a Sharpie.”

Apparently Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa feels just the same way I do. So much so that he had someone memorialize his wish list in a memo. Good idea. Since it’s so easily available on the web, I just might copy it for my own use. In case I get a staff, so I’ll be all set.

What I wouldn’t do, if I were the mayor, is tell my staff to deny what anyone can see with their own two eyes.

Deputy Communications Director Joe Ramallo downplayed the significance of the instructions, calling them “suggested guidelines” that carried over from the mayor’s two years on the City Council.

“Give me a break,” Ramallo said. “This is a mayor who is more engaged and active around the city than any other in L.A.’s history. By the standards of most officeholders who have much larger staffs, he is not tightly choreographed. You’ve seen him in action.”

Villaraigosa’s exacting attention to detail can include impatience at those who foul him up. He grew visibly frustrated last week when a translation system failed to work adequately during a town hall meeting in South Los Angeles. “Fix it,” he barked.

Not only are the mayor’s specifications spelled out in the kind of detail usually reserved for Martha Stewart’s recipes or plans to build a stealth bomber, but the reporter provides examples of Villaraigosa losing his temper if his needs aren’t met. The outbursts happened right in front of him.

So why, why, would Ramallo try to sell the idea that the mayor’s instructions are just “suggested guidelines?”

He wasn’t going to stop the story. It was too good to pass up, and if Times reporter Duke Helfand didn’t run with it, someone else would. As he wrote, the memo was reminiscent of those icky memos from rock stars that show up on websites like The Smoking Gun:

Some date the current wave of celebrity pampering to a mischievous act by a hard-rock band.

The group Van Halen once placed a clause in its contract requiring bowls of M&M candy, with the brown ones plucked out. The Rolling Stones responded a year later by demanding candy bowls filled only with brown M&Ms. From there, the practice took hold — Britney Spears, for one, demanded full-length mirrors and Pop Tarts in her dressing room — and has eventually crept into politics as well.

Vice President Dick Cheney asks that his hotel room TVs be tuned to Fox News, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) crafted similarly picayune requests of hosts during his presidential campaign — right down to his preference for noncarbonated bottled water.

Hey, it could have been worse. He could have compared Villaraigosa’s list to Jennifer Lopez’ demand that her extra-large trailer be filled with white flowers, white candles and white sofas.

listerine-paks-strips.jpgSo why is Ramallo so defensive? What is the point of denying what is plainly true? The mayor is particular. He’s busy, and he’s on the move all day. He doesn’t like surprises. He needs a certain comfort level in order to govern the second biggest, second most-complicated city in America. The city is paying his staff to take care of details so he can do his job, which doesn’t include tracking down Sharpies. What would be so damaging about just saying that?

You make any story worse, from a PR perspective, if you act like the truth is Kryptonite. You’re better off explaining the truth in ways people will understand. Villaraigosa is not the part-time mayor of a small township in Rhode Island. But by trying to re-cast his staffing specs as “guidelines,” Ramallo is telling us, via subtext, that the mayor wants to be seen as something he’s not. That ends up leaving a more troubling impression than the mayor’s passion for Listerine strips.


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