On the first floor of the Capitol, there is a door across the hall from the governor’s office marked with a large red sign, “Authorized Personnel Only.”
Step through the door and you are in the bowels of the Capitol–mired in a serpentine maze of cubicles and small offices. In one corner, there is an alcove with an oversized L-shaped desk, five laptops, four television screens and no windows. This is the new communications hub in the governor’s office.
But don’t call it a War Room. Around the governor’s office, they refer to this place as the “News Room,” where stories are monitored and tracked in real time through a series of news feeds and a barrage of internal e-mails.
The news room is staffed by a team of young staffers and interns who all work for Communications Director Adam Mendelsohn. The new operation will be overseen by deputy communications director Elizabeth Ashford Perry and former reporter Jeff Barker, who worked on the governor’s campaign.
In this world of political blogs and cable news, the news room is designed in part to allow the governor’s office to formulate and hone the governor’s message as a news story is taking shape. It is the product of an accelerated news cycle, with an explosion of political bloggers and newspapers writing quick online versions of stories that will appear in print the following morning.
Now, if a bulletin goes out on the wires or blogs that the communications office thinks is wrong or misleading, this new tracking system allows the governor’s communications staff to contact a writer or editor to tweak a story before it winds up in print.
“It’s not a complex concept,” Mendelsohn says. “There is a lot of media out there that is all moving in real time. The expectation is for the communications office to provide information in real time. As media has evolved, it’s important that the communications office to the governor evolve as well.”
While terms like “rapid response” are traditionally thought of in terms of political campaigns, Mendelsohn says what is happening inside his office is no different than what happens in other high-pressure communications environments. Rather than the campaignification of the statehouse, it is more of the D.C-ification of the California governor’s press operation.
The creation of the news room in the governor’s office is the culmination of a complete transformation of Schwarzenegger’s staff. The departure of Press Secretary Margita Thompson, in some ways, marks the official end of the first Schwarzenegger team. That team–led by Pat Cleary, Richard Costigan and Rob Stutzman–is now all gone, and a new team headed by Susan Kennedy has settled into place.
Of the old team, only Sean Walsh and Cynthia Bryant remain in senior advisory roles.
With the governor’s campaign now over, the political team is shifting into a full-time policy and governing operation. Last week, the governor announced a new set of senior advisers and a shuffling of some top members of his cabinet.
He is bringing some campaign-style discipline with him. The “news room” was set up by Matt David, the campaign’s deputy communications director, who established the campaign war room. David will bring his war room skills to the presidential campaign in 2008, doing the same thing for John McCain that he did for Schwarzenegger this year.
Mendelsohn, who returned to California last year after working for a PR firm in Washington, D.C., says the new changes inside the Horseshoe are part of an overall tweak for the governor’s second term. On the policy side, each of the new senior advisers will have a policy portfolio, and they will work closely with the chief of staff and the communications director to update and help cultivate the governor’s message.
Ashford Perry will play a key role working with top policy advisers and beginning the process of translating policy issues into press-friendly talking points. That message will be polished by Mendelsohn and disseminated through the governor’s press office. Ashford Perry and Barker also will help inform and educate the governor’s staff and field offices about the complex policy issues in the news.
Mendelsohn says he hopes to have a new press secretary in place shortly.
Other smaller changes also are coming to the press office. For the first time, Schwarzenegger will have a press deputy that is exclusively focused on broadcast media–predominantly television. With a dearth of TV reporters covering the Capitol, that likely means focusing on reporters outside of the Capitol press corps.
But Mendelsohn is sensitive to suggestions that this new operation means the governor is staying in campaign mode. He says it is simply a reflection of how the press corps and political reporting has changed.
“Media is going through a transformation right now that is historic,” he says. “This is nothing more than a reaction to the way media has shifted, between the Internet and cable news and all the different pieces that have developed.”
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