Yesterday's Los Angeles Times reports that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's flunkies -- like FEMA Director Mike Brown's -- fussed over her image as she tried to project control over the disaster. Apparently further to work their image, they also apparently considered how many and what color of people should be let in/out of the state:
WASHINGTON -- In the days after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's staff fretted about her public image, with her press secretary worrying that the governor looked more like a "first lady" than a "John Wayne" as she marshaled the response to the nation's worst natural disaster, e-mails released by a House investigative committee today show.
The committee released the electronic communications just two days before Blanco was scheduled to appear before it to offer her first public accounting to Congress of the state's much-criticized preparation for and response to the disaster.
A committee spokesman said the e-mails demonstrated a preoccupation with image and political concerns as the state struggled to evacuate stranded storm victims.
In one e-mail, Blanco's assistant chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, complained to her executive counsel and other staff members on Sept. 2 about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's evacuation of thousands of Louisianans to other states.
"I think that we should make every effort to keep as many of our evacuees in state as possible," Anderson wrote.
"It is not acceptable to allow FEMA to send more people out of state than in state. That will come back to haunt us," he said. "You send that many black folks out of state, we will have a perception problem. Why can't we make every effort to send folk to the northern part of the state. Word is already (sic) that we are only sending blacks out of this state. We are make (sic) a strategic error. FEMA will not have to answer the people, we will."
It gets even more ridiculous here:
Kim Fuller of Witt and Associates, who Blanco hired to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Sept. 5 weighed in with, "Gov. Blanco reminds me of the classy Elizabeth Dole," the U.S. senator from North Carolina who is married to the 1996 GOP presidential candidate, Bob Dole.
Fuller continued, "Gov. Blanco might dress down a bit and look like she has rolled up her sleeves. I have some great Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class."
Fuller recommended Blanco wear "rough-looking shoes."
"Have you consider that she doing something 'physical' while she is out with" U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Fuller wrote. "Maybe if she is with the troops she can put a few bags of ice in the hands of the citizens who need it."
Other advice appeared designed to bolster Blanco's public image in the midst of the crisis.
"Please put KBB (Blanco) in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc. . . she needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough but hug on some folks and be sensitive," wrote Liz Mangham of Southern Strategy Group of Louisiana in a message to a Blanco aide on Sept. 2.
"She looks tired but too comfy in her suit," Mangham wrote. "Just some thoughts to try to help. ... In fact, please put the secretaries in caps and jeans. ... I don't care if they are in the field or not ... they should look like they are."
Even Carl Hebert with the state's emergency preparedness office could not help but give clothing advice. He stated in an Aug. 29 e-mail how well Blanco looked "in a dashing blue business suit" before continuing with his morning report on the number of fatalities and other situations that occurred overnight.
Clearly, much of this "released" information is meant for political purposes. Still, I guess we could 1) all be surprised, 2) demand a recall vote, and 3) declare ourselves officially outraged. I'd prefer to know how others in PR view this. Two options come to mind:
- This kind of thing is shallow and unworthy of public officials. Who gives a crap how you're dressed as long as you're working 25 hours a day getting people helped and rescued and fed?
- Au, contraire. We may want to say image management is shallow and vapid, but in fact it's an important part of projecting authority. You might be working your so hard you can barely stand up, but if you dress like a queen, you'll lack the believeability and authority necessary in that situation, and that in fact can cause further problems and chaos.
Or, probably, there's a reasonable in between. Dress in between, then forget it and get to work. Demand facts, get facts, and share facts with the public, as Guiliani did in 2001. When you don't know, say you don't know but are working to find out. Work, then work some more.
Do what Vermont Gov. Snelling did when deciding with his cabinet what to do about transporting nuclear waste through his state -- he said, "First, we have to decide what the right thing to do is; then we'll think about the politics. Otherwise we'll just confuse ourselves."
My own perception is that Blanco looked confused because her staff was pulling her in different directions. Maybe she didn't know what to do, didn't have much available to do, and tried to manage too many things, her image included, at once.I still believe it's close to always true -- you do the work first, and images follow. Positive ones. Good work begets good image.