Razor Wire & PR

Election '04
Editors note: This is the second in a series of insightful yet humorous dispatches from the DNC. Read Josh Bearman's first dispatch here. Or to read all dispatches – large and small – as they're posted, go here.

Somewhere inside the Fleet Center is a guy I haven't met named Don Mischer. I've been trying to reach him for 10 days since he's the Executive Producer of the convention. Like the Academy Awards, the convention is a live broadcast event that has to be organized over many months by such a person. The DNC hired Mischer because he's a Democrat and knows how to put on a show. Mischer, in fact, has been the go-to guy for the Emmys for the past eight years, where he not only runs the operation but has also gone on stage to accept awards 13 times himself.

Fans of live spectaculars might also recognize his flair for ceremony from the opening and closing events at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Barbara Streisand's Millennium Concert in Las Vegas, the re-unification of Hong Kong and China, and Motown's Twenty-fifth Anniversary in 1983. His events have been hailed by the Washington Post and the New York Times with such approbations as "a stunningly beautiful pageant," "extravagant and enthralling," and, in the case of Motown 25, as "an important historical footnote" by me because I happen to know that the only white dude considered cool enough to perform alongside the Motown greats was Adam Ant. Not only that, rumor has it that Michael Jackson was very impressed by Adam Ant's deconstructed ancien regime getup, reminding us, yet again, how revolutionary the Ant was in the Prince Charming Revue days.

About the convention, Don Mischer seemed the best source. He's the person who developed the floor plan, set up the stage, arranged the cameras, and is still at this moment outlining how the performance will unfold. And that's the central story, really, more so than the politics of the upcoming week, of which there are none. The most recent multiple ballot at either convention was 1952. Twenty years after that, Miami, saw the last moment of procedural frisson, when the McGovernites arranged some arcane move involving a thrown vote by the South Carolina delegation that I've read about several times but have yet to fully comprehend. Even then, McGovern had it sewed up; the South Carolina maneuver was more of a coup de grace. There have been no surprises since. At that time the nominee still had to pick a running mate, but now that's done well in advance. Likewise, the platform today is unimportant. No one reads it, and any wrinkles are ironed out quietly, a week or two ahead of time, well away from the glare of the lights and network cameras.

What remains are the speeches and the syrupy bio-pic of the nominee, and only three primetime hours of network coverage for the Party to present that to the country. Meaning what's left of this political tradition are a few pages of well-chosen words and some stagecraft.

The DNC, however, doesn't want to reinforce the impression that their convention is a carefully scripted television extravaganza, so they're not so interested in having people talk to Don Mischer about how he's bringing that Hollywood touch to Boston.

Either that or DNC is in complete disarray. I've called their press offices around 50 times, half of that in the past two days, and you can hear the sounds of organizational mayhem in the background. I've been transferred to dozens of different people, none of whom seem to be able make any decisions. A few times the phone was picked up by someone I'd already talked to, merely hours before, and they remembered nothing from that conversation.

They were mostly very nice, though, which is the rule of political "communications": say nothing with a smile. In all public relations, a friend in the field confided (she currently works for the DNC but not in the capacity to hook me up with Mischer), politeness is a defense mechanism. Be nice to everyone, she said, even the lowliest person who cannot now help your boss/client/organization – because you don't want to offend someone who may later achieve power and be in a position to fuck you over. "Or," she added, "you have to be equally mean and nasty to everyone – like hot-shot publicists in the city." (That would be New York City.) "But you have to make that choice early."

I think both choices are the same. That defense is really an offense. No matter how nice a publicist is, their job is to push something or protect someone. Effective public relations is about control. The more invisible the control the better. The true art of PR is to make the journalist – or any other seeker of access or information – feel as if they're getting somewhere while actually running in place.

This was the strategy employed when I called Zach Rosenfield, a publicist at of Eddie Michaels & Associates, who represents Don Mischer. His assistant sounded overjoyed to hear from me. Then she put me through to her boss (but not before asking if the LA Weekly would be interested in featuring some new energy drink).

"Mr. Mischer's very busy, but I'll see what I can do for you." Zach said. "I'll get back to you right away."

I had to call him back a dozen more times to get slightly more descriptive dodges, like "I'm trying. Let me run that up the DNC flagpole first."

Moments later, when I'd call the DNC press staff, someone would say, "We have to run that by Don Mischer's people."

Let's call this move the Bi-furcated Snare. It's a well-worn classic in the PR arsenal: Open up two fronts, and keep shifting blame and attention between them until deadlines have passed or the information is otherwise moot. Here the tactic was not planned, demonstrating that it must be written into the primary code of the programming script one downloads when entering the PR profession. By the time I reached someone slightly sympathetic at the DNC, Mischer and the rest of the production staff were genuinely too busy to take time out for reporters, and the Los Angeles Times had already run a bland little feature on Mischer. Still, I was told to call back in an hour.

"But I'm here now," I said. I was in the "free speech area" outside the Fleet Center, within view of the double-decker tent where the DNC press people were assembling their field office. "But I can't make a decision on this right now," the woman on the phone said.

"What they hell was that guy going to tell you anyway?" Steve said, checking out the K-barriers and chain-link fence that demarcated the protest pen. "He has nothing interesting to say. And if he did, he wouldn't tell a reporter anyway. That's the rules of the game. These things are not about access. Look at this place."

The protest zone was small, and situated under a steel bridge. There was an overhead netting to prevent the rowdies from hopping the fence or going ballistic in the literal sense. The place was empty except for journalists. Some Dutch press asked us if we were protesters. A Pacifica affiliate decided to interview Steve about his thoughts on the configuration of the free speech area.

"It's not so bad I guess," he said. "A little small maybe. But at least it's in view. I was surprised when I saws that. The media will see them. And that's what they want, you know, to get their message across."

I pointed out that in 2000, the protests were also fenced in, but they were at least directly in the path of all convention attendees. Everyone had to walk right by the pit several times a day, whereas this space was somewhat out of the way.

"The protestors don't care about the delegates," Steve said. "The purpose is to get their message to reporters, and every reporter will be out here. And this is nothing. Wait until the Republican convention. The Republicans always put the protesters miles away. I was at the inaugural protest in 2001 and that was out of sight, almost at Dupont Circle. Nobody saw us."

The Pacifica technician thought that was a good point.

"You want to see control," Steve said. "Wait until New York in late August."

To read all dispatches – large and small – as they're posted, go here.

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