Regardless of who was actually responsible for the snow (God), weather predictions (meteorologists), Atlanta traffic (population growth/outdated infrastructure/racist politics/Cobb County/rural Georgia voters), readiness and maintenance of interstates (Governor Nathan Deal), late closing of schools and shutdown of school buses (school superintendent), everyone's blaming Kasim Reed for this whole ATL #SnowJam2014 thing. I know why.
This was mainly a PR fail, and here's how it happened. Mayor Reed went on live national television expecting fairness.
He made five critical public relations mistakes.
His first major appearance shouldn’t have been on live national television.
It is very hard to control the message when you’re in a live, one-on-one interview due to their unpredictable nature and possibility for a journalist to go for a career-making "gotcha" moment. A press conference would have been the best choice, but Mayor Reed went to Carol Costello of CNN. Unlike local media, who would have likely been much more forgiving/understanding, CNN is a national media outlet that competes (unsuccessfully) with Fox News. Roger Ailes taught CNN the hard way that you can demoralize your competition by reminding yourself that a majority of TV viewers have already formed an opinion about anything that’s going on before they even came to you. Fox wrote the book on fanning those flames to higher ratings. CNN doesn't just want that money; they are starting to lose to MSNBC. They've had to get with the times.
If Reed's office felt it was important to have someone on CNN live, they should have sent a representative who could repeat a clear, concise statement from Reed without going off message. Even if Costello ate that person’s lunch in front of viewers, Reed could have come back later at a press conference in front of multiple cameras at once, to tell everyone what was what, and not just firmly taking responsibility for what happens next, but taking questions and conveying that he was taking action.
He shouldn’t have talked about 2011.
Winter Storm Leon happened January 28, 2014. The previous storm, whose name I can’t remember but was probably not as ridiculous as Leon, happened January 9, 2011. That’s more than three years. People can barely remember the last Falcons game (and who would want to), much less the severity of the last storm that shut down the city. Until people with better memories of that storm reminded me, I’d forgotten that was a Sunday. Either way, sure there was ice and snow and all that. I remember being stuck at the bottom of slope of road next to Hamilton Holmes MARTA station for about four hours. It wasn’t great. But even that seemed like child’s play compared to the widespread chaos of Leon. People don’t want to hear about the lessons you’ve learned from the last time you made the mistake you’re making at that moment. They just want the mistake fixed. Improvements can be dealt with after the fact.
He shouldn’t have made the discussion about himself.
Within the first 30 seconds of his interview with Costello, he said “What I’ve been doing is working nonstop to alleviate a very tough situation.” Perhaps the better pronoun to use would have been “we’ve.” Decentralizing the focus of who isn’t getting it done would have kept people from giving him the proverbial “ice grill” (that’s hip-hop slang for mean-mug or scowl, if you needed clarity) through their TV sets. The weird thing is that right after that he starts using the word “we.” It is not just admirable for a mayor to take responsibility for these type of problems when they happen; it’s part of the job. Atlantans don’t have to be told that the mayor is working hard—hell, he’d better be.
He shouldn’t have taken the sensationalist and religious bait.
Carol Costello was bloodthirsty and headhunting. Who knows if she’d had a long commute from Brookhaven or wherever, but you could tell she was out for destruction. As or Mayor Reed, you could see from his reaction to the early moment in the interview, after she asked him “You don’t think people are angry at you?!”, that he never saw it coming. His eyebrows shot up, and he immediately tried to play some tenacious D. Unlike Sway, he had the answers, but they didn’t matter because Costello had questions that didn’t require answers. They were all heat rocks aimed at his head. When she then said “plenty of people” said schools should have been closed, and he responded by saying, “Carol, let me say this: if you’re being fair, you would point out that the Atlanta public school system makes the call when the system is closed.” But he cut his eyes at Miss Lady like she deserved to be shanked. At that moment it was a wrap.
Realizing she could frustrate him with needling questions (based totally on incorrect assumptions either she had or she figured her viewers did), she threw inquisitive darts like “Don’t you collaborate??”, and “So, they just overruled your suggestions??”, when the topic of traffic and shutting down school buses came up. To the first question, he said to her in a calm-but-frustrated tone, “Well, you ought to be fair with your interview.” That in itself was a fair statement, because Costello should have done her homework to know that the school superintendent makes the call for school closures and public transportation of students. And it doesn’t take a journalism degree from Columbia to know that people weren’t waiting on Mayor Reed to tell them when to leave work on Tuesday afternoon. Either way, Costello starts straight-up interrupting Reed, asking “So who is to blame?!”, and “Who made that decision to let schools let out, businesses to let out and government offices to let out all at the same time??” She’s dropping her hand down in Tomahawk Chop-fashion, smirking at Reed. He’d already answered the question back when he correctly said it was the superintendent’s call on the schools, but by then it was on like Duck Hunt.
And then there was God. Costello rebutted Reed’s claim that there had been no fatalities (at least reported) by saying that was only by the “grace of God.” Reed replied, “It was not just by the grace of God; it was through a lot of people working, Carol.” See, that’s true, but you can’t just say that. Georgia is beneath the bible belt. This state is the balls of Bible Country. You can’t bring up God and say there’s something He didn’t do by Himself. Reed artfully backpedaled/amended that line by saying “I think it’s by the grace of God, and thousands of employees who did not go to sleep last night who are working very hard.” Seconds later he adds “I agree that God had a role in it, but God needs partners.” Good God Almighty. In Drake’s dad’s voice. People just aren’t able to handle statements like that. While true, again, this is Georgia. From there he kept getting interrupted, and from there it was out of control.
He shouldn’t have chosen that black Lacoste jacket.
Wardrobe plays a silent but deadly role in TV appearance, particularly in politics. Chris Christie was out in New Jersey sporting a blue windbreaker that had “GOVERNOR” stamped over his heart right after Hurricane Sandy. It looked like he was ready for rain, sleet, hail, hell, or whatever. And it matched the Democrat-blue version Obama wore (don’t forget that Jersey is a “blue” state).
General Russel Honore donned desert camo every time you saw him on the scene during Katrina. Sure, he probably had to, but was he required to rock the dark shades and the cigar as well? He loomed large. Plus now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure both leaders cursed at least one journalist out when shit got real.
Mayor Reed’s black nylon Lacoste bomber jacket looked slick. A little too slick for a guy everybody wasn’t sure if they were mad at. I mean, check this guy out:
He’s wearing that 2014 Kasim Reed, and let’s be real here: he doesn’t look like he’s trying to get stranded schoolchildren, women in labor, or peeing elderly women off I-285’s icy shoulders. He looks like he’s trying to pull some strange out of the club tonight. Even in the snow—hell, especially in the snow, son!!! That $275 spent wasn’t just for outer warmth, my dude!!
I could go on and on, but even I know when to stop talking. I only wish Mayor Reed’s PR team, or whoever he consults for media, would have gotten in his ear before his very rough day on the national stage. Hopefully his efforts over the next few days will go a long way with damage control. As someone who contributed to his reelection campaign, I fully understand if people who disagree with me think I’m just carrying water for City Hall on this, but I see it differently. The money I gave to Mayor Reed gives me the right to criticize him, and I think this whole thing could have been handled better, starting with his responsibilities to Atlanta and its citizens. It looks like the worst is now behind us, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of work to be done to fix things. If I were him, I’d pick up a shovel.
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