Press Secretary: Accept Mecham’s new man

September 21, 1987

By Richard de Uriarte
Editorial Writer, The Phoenix Gazette

Welcome to Arizona, Kenneth V. Smith, Gov. Evan Mecham’s new press secretary. Lots of luck … fool.

uriarte180Smith, whose appointment follows the unlamented departure of abrasive Ron Bellus, enters the job with one great advantage: Absolutely no one expects him to succeed. If he writes a simple news release which does not misspell an agency director’s name and doesn’t fracture the English language, he will be hailed as a miracle-worker.

But face it. Smith arrives in a war-zone situation armed with nothing but news releases. Contrary to the claims of the Bellus-bashers, the outgoing press secretary was not the principal cause of the Mecham administration’s press problems.

A press secretary doesn’t secure amiable media relations or favorable clippings. Only a governor can do that.

Remember when it was announced, late this summer, that Bellus would be replaced? The governor said he was searching for someone tough enough to handle the “big-league battles.” Folks, that says it all about the fortress mentality on the ninth floor. Mecham regards the press with such Nixonian venom that he sees his news secretary as a battlefield commander.

Mecham is undoubtedly correct that a lot of working journalists didn’t vote for him. And there have been some anti-Mecham stories that were overblown or under-researched. But the reporters have not been concocting their negative articles. The stories are dropping to them like leaves off a eucalyptus. One Capitol reporter compared covering Mecham to falling into a vat of chocolate.

Mecham’s conservative, anti-establishment politics is not the root of his problems. Populist conservatives can do quite well among reporters. Look at Ronald Reagan, Attorney General Bob Corbin and Scottsdale legislator Jim Skelly. Mecham’s problem is a public relations non-strategy which consists of embarrassing, off-the-cuff comments followed by bitter complaints about media bias.

The job of press secretary is no fun, even if you admire the politician you wor for and are regarded as a credible source among the media. Government insiders view you as an outsider, always ready to defend “them” (the hostile news media). Journalists, in turn, see you as a “flak,” a turncoat, a former reporter who sold out for less hectic hours and a somewhat fatter paycheck.

Having labored in this thankless vineyard myself for five years, I could envision a scenario for Smith to turn things around. But I’d be dreaming.

Smith must be accepted as part of the Mecham management team, with access and input into most major decisions. At the very least, he should explain the likely press and public reaction to various policy alternatives. And the governor should listen. But is Mecham ready to place such trust in a newcomer, an out-of-stater?

A valued press secretary should be an in-house devil’s advocate, arguing on behalf of the press to the media haters in the governor’s office and speaking out authoritatively and forcefully for the governor to the Mecham-baiting press. Bellus did neither. He was useless to both sides of an admittedly adversarial relationship.

Reporters don’t have to agree with a politician on every issue to write unbiased, accurate stories — which the Mecham people say is all they want. But Ken Smith has to establish himself quickly as a valuable source to know and cultivate, with real information to communicate. And the governor must see Smith as a new beginning, not a bunker reinforcement. Mecham has squandered opportunities by a lack of preparation and a penchant for saying the insensitive, untimely, wrong thing.

Frankly, it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever prepped him be ore a news conference on what message he should convey, what questions might be asked, and what might be the politic comment to make. Instead, Mecham just says whatever pops into his mind. That’s why he gets into so much trouble — and the reason why reporters follow him wherever he goes. The governor might blurt out one of his classic “Does the pope speak English?” lines at any time.

After nine months and the unprecedented publication of the governor’s own newspaper, it is hard to imagine how Mecham can turn a new leaf. Perhaps survival will be incentive enough.