Follow @dmihalopoulosIn his no-longer-private emails, we saw how much effort Mayor Rahm Emanuel puts into grooming Chicago’s image — and his personal brand — across the country and the world.
Recently released documents show the mayor often used his Gmail account to lean unabashedly on East Coast media chums developed when he was a top aide to two presidents, plaintively seeking positive press for his proudest accomplishments.
But yet another wave of negative national and international media attention swamped the mayor and the city this week.
Follow @dmihalopoulosThe racially and politically charged kidnapping and beating of a mentally disabled teen on the West Side — which was streamed live on Facebook — placed Chicago on the front pages Friday of The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.
And articles about the incident in England’s Daily Mail — the most widely read English-language newspaper website — had drawn thousands of comments by Friday evening.
This fresh civic shame closely followed a CBS “60 Minutes” report on the city’s spiking murder rate in 2016, when Chicago recorded nearly 800 homicides.
The nationally televised program gave the biggest platform yet to the media tour of former top cop Garry McCarthy. Once an Emanuel loyalist, he has turned sharply critical since the mayor canned him after 2015’s Laquan McDonald video fiasco.
Altogether, the situation presents a huge public relations challenge for a mayor who always acts as his own primary-care spin doctor.
Emanuel’s initial efforts to control the new P.R. crisis were weak. On Thursday, when authorities filed hate-crime charges against the four defendants in the Facebook case, Emanuel sought to pivot away from the matter, keying instead on the city’s record tourism numbers last year.
The mayor boasted that more than 54 million visitors enjoyed Chicago in 2016 and touted the popularity of his new riverwalk.
“There’s more to our city than that, and I see it every day,” Emanuel said of the “sickening” attack on the West Side. “Obviously, with the success of these [tourism] numbers . . . so do other people.”
There’s no arguing with Emanuel’s description of Chicago as “a world-class city with world-class capacity” to entertain and impress the legions who want to travel here.
But his assertions also again contrasted the shimmering downtown of the tourists and well-to-do locals with many violent and economically depressed neighborhoods across Chicago. Such comparisons only buttress the “two Chicagos” and “Mayor 1 Percent” narratives that complicated Emanuel’s re-election run two years ago.
Two Democratic consultants from far outside town say there’s no easy way for the mayor to counter the way Chicago is coming off to the rest of the world.
“It looks horrendous,” says Richard Schlackman, a California-based consultant who knows Emanuel but has not worked for his campaigns. “From an imaging point of view and despite what he’s doing, everything reported here is ‘Chicago, murder, Chicago, murder, Chicago, murder.’”
Schlackman compared the external perceptions of Chicago today to New York’s national profile decades ago, as that city reeled from high crime and racial incidents.
“Rahm is so desperate, he went to see [President-elect Donald] Trump to ask for help,” Schlackman says. “I don’t think anybody has the solutions to any of this. That’s his saving grace.”
James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant from Austin, Texas, advises Emanuel that, “Outsiders want to know it’s being dealt with as a crisis and not just a public-relations crisis.”
Many Republicans beyond Chicago are clearly reveling in the situation, alleging it exposes Democratic misrule in the city that launched Emanuel’s old boss, Barack Obama, to the White House.
Even after meeting with Emanuel and his two brothers, Trump could not resist taking a hard poke at the mayor. On Twitter earlier this week, the Republican president-elect expressed shock at Chicago’s crime figures and urged Emanuel to ask Washington for help — which the mayor says he had already done during a recent Trump Tower meeting.
The Trump tweet didn’t seem at all sincere. Nothing shows you care quite like using the tragedies of so many families to troll a prominent member of the rival political party.
But Trump’s barbs could present an opportunity for Emanuel. Maybe what the mayor needs to re-invigorate his image is a public spat with the only politician who may be less popular than him in Chicago right now.