One of the hardest jobs in government — even one misstep can be costly to the governor

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the public via video on Aug. 12, 2020, without inviting news reporters to attend and ask questions. It's a tactic employed by the governor's new communications director. Source: Screenshot

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ daily administrative schedule popped into reporters’ email inboxes at 10:21 a.m. on Tuesday.

That would be unremarkable, except that in the past this guidepost to the governor’s agenda frequently arrived well into the cocktail hour — way too late to offer much guidance to press hounds eager to know what the governor was up to.

Fred Piccolo Jr., director of communications for Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Fred Piccolo, Jr.

The change is among the first wrought by Fred Piccolo Jr., a life-long Republican with a propensity for pugnacity on Twitter who took over as the governor’s communications director in late July. He replaced Helen Aguirre Ferré, who in turn became chief spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida.

The timely publication of the document already has paid off, Piccolo said in a telephone interview with the Florida Phoenix, “in the sense that it doesn’t make them [the Capital Press Corps] angry first thing in the morning that they haven’t heard what’s going on in the day.”

The governor’s chronically late daily schedule ranked among reporters’ top gripe, Piccolo said, and the governor himself approved the shift.

It’s part of Piccolo’s effort to recast the governor’s message and strategy — while trying to avoid riling the press more than absolutely necessary.

That doesn’t mean the underlying message has changed: DeSantis remains steadfastly conservative, willing to sling arrows at the media and liberal pieties.

But the governor isn’t tearing around the state so much, presiding over a COVID-related roundtable multiple times each week. It’s not that DeSantis doesn’t get around — on Monday he made appearances in Jacksonville and Green Cove Springs. But the pace is more relaxed, at least as viewed from the outside.

Furthermore, DeSantis has been spending more weekends outside the limelight. Previously, it was not unusual to see him in front of cameras on both Saturday and Sunday.

When DeSantis does appear, he’s more likely to address the public directly, over the heads of the press corps. He made one such speech on Aug. 12 from the Florida Cabinet chamber, promoting his plan to reopen the schools even during the COVID-19 outbreak.

No reporters were present to pester DeSantis with questions.

Fox News Channel. Credit: Wikipedia.

“As much as we can control the message — not control it in the sense that we’re going to get our way with the news media. But if we can get to people with just him unfiltered, we’ll take that opportunity nine times out of 10,” Piccolo said.

“And then, you’ve got to work your way down to so-called friendly outlets — and I’ll be honest, Fox is a friendly outlet and MSNBC is not. So if Fox calls and says, ‘Hey, we’d like him to be on “Hannity” or “Fox & Friends,” chances are we’ll say yes.”

By contrast, a national reporter who forwarded a list of questions that the DeSantis camp saw as prelude to a hit piece received a polite “No.”

Additionally, Piccolo has launched a morning newsletter under the governor’s name offering “an unfiltered access to a couple of thousand people, 10,000 or so on the list, and it’s a way to talk to them about what we want to talk about without any filter.”

It goes to staff, news media, consumers of old newsletters like the one Piccolo maintained while working as top spokesman to two House Speakers, lobbyists and associations, “other people involved in the process.”

“Some people could take it as an inside baseball thing — I don’t know how many of the general public are going to want to read the governor’s musings every morning.”

In drafting the newsletter, Piccolo looks first to the local news of the day. “If there’s a good article about something the governor’s done, we’ll put it in there if it’s local and Florida-based. That’s kind of Step 1. Step 2 would be we’ll look for articles or opinion pieces that bolster and defend the governor’s position on an issue or something he’s doing.”

He avoids links to articles behind paywalls, as with the Wall Street Journal, not available to nonsubscribers. “I’m trying to find things that are readable and accessible,” Piccolo said.

Finally, he looks for stories that are “super good or even mildly optimistic about COVID. “We want to give people hope— and there is a lot of hope,” he said.

At the same time, Piccolo said of reporters, “You’re professionals and you have a job to do. It’s not always going to be a good story about my boss.”

Ron Sachs, the veteran Tallahassee PR man who was communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles, calls the job one of the hardest jobs in state government.

“Even one misstep in strategy or message can be very costly to the governor. You make a mistake in the budget office, you can correct it with an eraser. You make a mistake in conversations with lawmakers about a piece of policy, you can correct it with a follow-up conversation,” he said.

“You make a mistake in strategy or message, and that’s out there publicly. And the costs and consequences fall not to the communications director but to the governor.”

The old days – reporters at the Capitol interviewing the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. Florida archives photo

As for the press, “there’s supposed to be an arm’s length in that relationship. Sometimes it’s a stiffer arm than at others,” Sachs said.

“Reporters are tough, and sometimes it comes across as mean or unfair or imbalanced, but they’re just trying to do their jobs. The communication director’s job is make sure that you collaborate and cooperate to help them do their jobs by providing timely information with the facts and the truth.”

Democratic campaign communications consultant Kevin Cate in Tallahassee declined to comment about Piccolo’s new duties but did discuss the job’s difficulty.

“Florida’s a massive, 10-media market state, and it requires extreme clarity and extreme purpose and extreme focus to get anything to penetrate to a degree that will move the state one way or another,” Cate said.

Additionally, ‘”it requires a professional relationship with the media, a proficiency in social media, and a willingness to never sleep,” he said.

The Phoenix reached out to former communications chiefs to GOP governors, including Ferré but they either declined comment or didn’t get back to us.

Another Piccolo initiative includes one-on-one time between DeSantis and individual reporters. He’s convinced the governor shines under those conditions.

“The governor’s a personable guy. He’s a fun guy, incredibly intelligent,” he said.

“I think most of the people in the media are pretty smart people who can dive into an issue. And the governor’s a smart guy. You can at least respect each other’s position on an issue or where you’re coming from. And then you’re going to get better content.”

Most of this content is available via social media, as are folksy images of the governor posing with, say, a taco truck’s owners, as he did on Tuesday.

Piccolo uses his own Twitter account to riposte with reporters but also to promote policies favored by the governor and Republicans generally, but also to throw an elbow. For example, there’s Piccolo’s tweet Friday containing a photo of an assault weapon and this message: “Joe Biden asked if I feel safe in Trumps America……damn right I do. #NRA #FirstFreedom. #2A.”

Piccolo does believe reporters tend to go harder on Republicans in office. “With the news media, we like to say we’re always playing an away game, and I think there’s some truth to that as Republicans,” Piccolo said.

Yet, for all his Twitter provocations, Piccolo stresses the need for everyone to respect the transaction.

“I also think that in the news media there are some good people. You might not know it from my Twitter account,” he said.

“I think to myself, maybe the ethics rules need to change where people can go out to dinner again and know each other’s families. You can’t hate on somebody you know. You can disagree with them, but you’re not going to hate them.”