The Limits of Political Spin

Politicians suffer from a particular form of hubris. They often believe that their PR staff can make any problem go away. If the communication director can release a well-worded written statement or say the right thing to a gaggle of reporters, then any poor decision or bad behavior will be managed.

In observing North Carolina Governor McCrory’s problems over the last few months, I have great sympathy for his spokesperson Kim Genardo and the other communication staff members in the administration. These folks have dealt with problems large and small and often forced to manage situations without a clear understanding of the situation. The most recent situation at the Department of Health and Human Services illustrates the challenges of political spin.

On August 15, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker broke the story that two former McCrory campaign workers, Matthew McKillip and Ricky Diaz, has received large salary increases in their respective roles as policy advisor and communication director for DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. Biesecker reported that neither Governor McCrory or Secretary Wos had comments about the hiring of these 24-year olds into important positions or about their salary levels. At a press conference the next day, Governor McCrory defended the hiring and salary decisions by stating that both were hired over other applicants based on their experience. He also said that many people in state government were paid well, referencing college presidents and athletic coaches, so the pay levels for McKillip and Diaz were in line.

Two days later, after increased media and partisan scrutiny over the hires, Genardo was sent out to defend the decisions. In response to the opening questions, she referred specific questions to Secretary Wos, but added that Wos desired to put together the best staff possible. When asked about a statement made by Rick French, CEO of PR firm French West Vaughan about Diaz’ salary being out of line for someone with little experience, Genardo defended the salary by saying that Diaz did more than provide public relations assistance at HHS.

On August 29, Michael Biesecker published an article disputing McCory’s initial claim about both McKillip and Diaz beating out older applicants for the position by stating that neither of the positions was posted and, therefore, the two were not competitively chosen based on their qualifications. Again, Genardo was forced to defend the McCrory administration with her statement: “Every personnel law and policy was adhered to in the hiring of Diaz and McKillip, State government has nearly 90,000 employees and the press has singled out two workers, yet no one has quibbled with their performance, work ethic and dedication to their department and the state of North Carolina.”

In-and-of-itself, political patronage is not a huge scandal. Handing out jobs to former campaign workers is standard fare that political leaders of both parties frequently do. The issue in this case is that the governor made it nearly impossible for Genardo to bury the story. In other situations, such as handing out cookies to the women protesting the governors actions and when the governor was throwing a baseball with staffers instead of meeting with those concerned with his policies, the governor has similarly put his communication staff into very awkward situations.

McCrory’s poll numbers are dropping with the most recent Public Policy Polling results indicating that less than 40 percent of North Carolinians saying that he is doing a good job as governor. The incidents mentioned above are not the major reasons for this drop, but contribute to the perception that the governor is not leading well. As with most politicians, Governor McCrory would be better served treating his communication staff as trusted advisors before taking actions like appointing former campaign workers as highly paid administrative staffers, rather than “gladiators in suits,” as the ABC drama Scandal portrays political spinmeisters, who are able to swoop in and clean up any situation.

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