Mayor Rahm Emanuel has long fashioned himself as the maestro of message control.
He uses numbered, Washington-style talking points — an apparent remnant from the training he got while earning a master’s degree in communications from Northwestern University.
The mayor also uses stalling tactics to buy time — like a wise-cracking put-down directed at a probing reporter — whenever a question throws him off-guard. That’s not often, given Emanuel’s notorious discipline and meticulous preparation.
Now there’s concrete evidence of just how much time the politically weakened mayor spends on the care and feeding of his media image and the preparation it takes to stay so maddeningly “on-message.”
Copies of the mayor’s monthly meeting schedule released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Chicago Sun-Times show that Emanuel held seven “off-the-record” meetings with reporters during the month of April alone. The handpicked reporters were not identified.
Many of those sessions were preceded by meetings with Emanuel’s communications staff labeled “OTR prep.”
The schedules also show that Emanuel had 10 other “press prep” sessions during the month of April, many of them lasting one hour.
In addition to the mayor’s many news conferences and general question-and-answer sessions during the month, there were also scores of other telephone interviews.
Many of them were held with radio stations during Emanuel’s ride to work. There were also several private, in-person interviews with designated reporters. Emanuel prefers those over news conferences because he feels less ambushed. And he can do what he loves to do: control the message.
On April 21, for example, Emanuel’s meeting schedule included one hour of “press prep,” followed by 2 1/2 hours of “interviews” in the mayor’s news conference room.
That was the day the mayor formally unveiled a timid first round of reforms in response to the scathing report by his handpicked Task Force on Police Accountability that stopped short of abolishing the Independent Police Review Authority or reopening the police contract.
At the time, the mayor didn’t rule out abolishing IPRA but hinted his decision would have to wait until he consults with the Justice Department, which is investigating the Chicago Police Department’s “patterns and practices” in the wake of the videotaped police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
The mayor has since reversed course and embraced the plan to replace IPRA with a more independent civilian agency, appoint a public safety inspector general to monitor the police department and create a Community Safety Oversight Board to monitor all police-related operations.
Emanuel uses off-the-record meetings with designated reporters to sell and spin his strategies and plans. The sessions are designed to build rapport and goodwill and lay the groundwork for what the mayor hopes will be more favorable media coverage in the future.
The mayor also has a history of cultivating relationships with columnists, editorial writers and influential members of the news media. It started during his days as a brash young political operative working under President Bill Clinton and continued during the time he spent in Congress and as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff.
That’s what made the feeding frenzy in the national media in response to Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video so stunning.
A politician who had spent so much time cultivating his relationship with and image in the national media was pilloried by those very same people.
Adam Collins, Emanuel’s newly appointed communications director, called questions about the time spent cultivating the mayor’s media image “pretty silly.”
“The mayor fights tirelessly to move the city forward, to drive economic development, to improve city services, to boost student achievement and so much more. And we work to ensure the people of Chicago are aware of the work being done on their behalf. What’s the surprise there?” Collins wrote in an email.
Emanuel’s once sterling image as a powerful player on the national stage has been decimated in one fell swoop. His public approval rating has plunged to 25 percent, according to a recent New York Times poll.
During April, when the mayor was spending so much time doing interviews and preparing for them, there were, as always, a ton of issues where he needed an understanding media.
Emanuel was trying to sell his now-abandoned Hail Mary plan to demolish McCormick Place East to make way for the Lucas Museum. The mayor was also trying to win public backing for his plan to do an end-run around the Police Board and anoint Chief of Patrol Eddie Johnson as Chicago’s new police superintendent, even though Johnson did not apply for the top job.
Emanuel was lobbying hard for pension help for the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools. He was also trying to sell his controversial plan to regulate and tax home-sharing services like Airbnb and fend off plans to license Uber and Lyft drivers to level the playing field with taxicabs.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), one of Emanuel’s most outspoken City Council critics, said he’s not surprised that the mayor spends so much time trying to control the media message.
“That’s the way he’s managed his whole political history. That’s what they do in D.C. He brought it here, hoping it would work. It hasn’t,” Waguespack said.