Friday, March 05, 2010

County Transition: Choosing the Messenger Sends a Message [Updated]

Burges & Burges has withdrawn from consideration from the competition for the communications consultant contract. See the story here:

County Transition: Choosing the Messenger Sends a Message

The biggest question surrounding the new form of county government is this: will anything really be different? Will the new government be more honest? More efficient? More inclusive? More imaginative? More effective? More attuned to the 21st century? Of better service to its constituents? More able to attract new residents, new jobs? Will it be a new form of the status quo, going to the same insiders to repackage the same approaches to the same problems and obtain the same results?

The old political structure is being swept away by a decisive electorate that wanted something new. But a new political structure does not preordain a new political culture. Whether a new culture emerges will depend in large measure on the extent that same electorate wants it badly enough to help create it.

One early measure of whether a new political culture is developing is the work of the various volunteer groups that are participating in planning for the transition. Earlier this week I attended a meeting of the Public Engagement Workgroup. The group’s membership includes several familiar names representing such well-known civic players as the League of Women Voters, Cleveland AFL-CIO, COSE [Council of Smaller Enterprises], RPM International, First Energy, and ThompsonHine.

Cuyahoga’s establishment power is often wielded in public settings by its law firms, public utilities, foundations and large corporations. If change is truly in the air, it will be reflected in new outcomes influenced by these establishment representatives.

Thanks to public attention and outcry, the work of these groups is public in unprecedented ways. Thus there were about fifteen members of the public, including this scribe, in attendance as the Workgroup heard presentations from three companies seeking to provide communication consulting services to the County’s Transition Advisory Group.

Briefly put, the work to switch from a two-century old commissioner structure to the new executive-council form ratified by the voters is an enormously complex operation. Cuyahoga County is a billion dollar plus government operation with roughly 8,000 employees providing vital services to more than one million people every day. It is about to undergo radical neurosurgery as it shifts to an all new management team that at present is wholly unidentified, unselected, and collectively may have zero experience in working together.

The idea of public engagement, it would seem, is to establish a two-way line of communication that will attract the public’s best ideas about how to go forward, and to keep the public apprised as much as possible about just what the heck is going on. Or, if you are a cynic about the whole process, public engagement will be about meaningless participation and opaque transparency: volunteers will be kept busy and feel involved, and information will be shared, but the real decisions will continue to be made offsite and out-of-sight.

Either way, the communications professionals who participate in shaping and broadcasting the transition process will themselves be central. Five companies submitted written proposals to the County. These proposals were evaluated and rated, and three teams were selected for further consideration. [When the team of Lesic & Camper Communications/ Cleveland State University decided to drop out, the fourth-ranked team — GAP/365 moved up and got a second chance.]

Tuesday afternoon’s meeting took place in a large second-floor room at COSE headquarters in the former Higbee/Dillard department store on Public Square. Each team was given 10-15 minutes to introduce itself and make its pitch, followed by a Q&A from the workgroup, with each member asking one of ten scripted questions to the team over the next 30-45 minutes.

All presenters came politically correct, with appropriate nods to race, ethnicity and gender. In fact, the majority of presenters were women, although men led or co-led every team. Every team featured people of color, with the first two teams emphasizing that their joint venture partners were longtime collaborators and not just accessories put on for the occasion. The third team, comprising two black-owned companies, had no need to offer such reassurance.
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But this is only partly about color and race and ethnicity, which are always in play, because we are human, and we live in America. It is also, and more importantly, about our political culture.

All of the teams are qualified in a competition like this. There is no test with an objectively marked grade. There are submissions, track records, auditions, and oftentimes winks and nods. But this process is about the public’s business, transparent to perhaps an unprecedented degree, and we submit, a likely harbinger of what is to come over the next year.

The first presenter was the team of Burges & Burges in tandem with Brenda Terrell & Associates.  Burges is the heavyweight of local political consultants. They have been around over a quarter of a century, they have been in lots of high-profile campaigns, they are super-connected. They know exactly what they are doing and how to do it. They have run, often simultaneously, levy campaigns, issues campaigns, and candidate campaigns. And, by the way, they were the hired gun for the Issue 6 campaign that stomped the opposition. So they know what to say, when to say it, who and where to say it.

Burges has such a big local footprint that they will not commit to avoiding representing candidates for either county executive or county council during the term of the contract.

And that’s pretty much what they said in their presentation. ‘We know what we’re doing, we’re the best around, we just got finished doing this stuff, and we are the safest, surest choice.’ Team leader Bill Burges was so laid back he was practically avuncular. His team answered all the Workgroup questions as if they had written them last week and donated them to the group.

Next up was Landau Public Relations. Principal Howard Landau had assembled a formidable team, including former Citizens League exec Jan Purdy, onetime East Ohio Gas man Terry Uhl, and the well educated, highly talented, broadly experienced and extraordinarily lovely Montrie Rucker Adams.

[Correspondent disclosure:  Montrie is a friend of longstanding, as are the aforementioned Brenda Terrell and the soon-to-be-discussed Alexandria Johnson (“I prefer to be called ‘Alex’) Boone.]

Landau was earnestness personified. His background is public relations, not political intrigue. His clients are mostly corporate or nonprofit, and he seemed drawn to this assignment out of a sincere desire to serve and participate. He appeared easy to work with and had a diverse and capable team. He would have been my second choice.

Last on the meeting agenda was the team of Gap Communications Group and Alex Boone, who has been around at least as long as Burges and Landau, heads Gap. As a black woman, her opportunities have been restricted, her challenges more severe. But she didn’t present that way, because, well, this is 2010, folks, Obama is president, and there will be no reparations.

What she did bring was energy, humor, confidence, and excitement. She brought a tight, no-name team that has worked together for most of this century. She brought handouts. She brought a power point presentation. And she brought interactive, as presented and demonstrated by Terry Thomas of Cleveland365.

All of the teams talked about social media as a key part of the communications mix. All seemed to understand that you couldn’t rely on it totally in a community with large pockets of technophobes, the unwired, and the impoverished. But Thomas clearly had an edge when it comes to social media. He articulated a vision of transparent and instantaneous two-way communication, and he demonstrated it hands on with his audience.

The Gap/Cleveland365 presentation had the least polish and the most sizzle. It was the best prepared, the best orchestrated, and the most hopeful. Boone and Thomas have the fewest establishment credentials, but they are the most Cleveland. They presented with the most energy, verve, and imagination. You can bet that if they win the contract they will assuredly treat it as the best opportunity they have ever earned, as it surely will be. And it will be a signal that this community is ready to be open, bold, adventurous, and interactive.
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One final note. In summer 2008, I attended a Cleveland365 event at the Botanical Garden in University Circle. The topic was regionalism and the speakers included representatives from Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. The joint was packed. I was astonished because in my four decades of attending local civic events of this type, I had never witnessed such a diverse crowd: an extraordinary mix of generations, geography, color, ethnicity, and attitude.

Local civic and political leaders like to talk about our diversity as if it were an accomplished fact. People who hear that talk might believe it if they have never been to Washington, DC, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. We remain a very segregated and stratified community. It is rare when an event takes place in this community that is so democratic in tone, tenor, and style that you wonder who put it together. Cleveland365 has done it, and they have done it more than once.

Burges is the safe choice. GAP/Cleveland365 is the best choice. If they are selected, you can believe that a groundswell is afoot, and that a new political culture might just be on the way to accompany the new political structure.