Last week’s New Year’s Eve release of thousands of email messages between top Chicago administration staffers in response to multiple news organizations’ Freedom of Information Act requests provides an unprecedented look into the workings of the top levels of an active Chicago mayoral operation. The messages, related to the Laquan McDonald shooting, illustrate the extensive authority the mayoral press operation has within city government.
WTTW’s Chicago Tonight has provided an excellent reference to the messages released, and a volunteer group, led by data analyst Steven Vance, has created a catalogue of each email message in the FOIA dump.
While the huge volume of email communication provides insight into how Mayor Emanuel’s office operates, it is far from a complete picture. There are likely many other related policy discussions elsewhere, either in email, on the phone or in person. Indeed, several message chains end with “please call me”, suggesting many decisions were made offline.
Reviewing the email trove, other news organizations have reported that Scott Ando and the Independent Police Review Authority coordinated closely with the Mayor’s office, that the McDonald family attorney threatened to reveal evidence of a “cover up” if there was no settlement and that the release of the McDonald video produced an “all hands on deck” response from Mayoral staff. There are likely to be more reports stemming from the email dump.
Early in my career, I served on personal staff for a pair of Cabinet Secretaries during the Clinton Administration. While these kinds of communications are familiar to me, a few things stand out.
Primarily, the communications between Emanuel staffers are extremely disciplined and process-oriented. There’s little personal talk, or references the usual familiarities that litter email between people in constant communication. Especially after the release of the McDonald video, when things are moving quickly, the team remains highly focused on the facts as they understand them and oriented towards delivering the message of the day.
This sort of message and process focus is no small feat, especially when so many average citizens are vilifying your boss on the outside. It is natural for even small challenges to the goal to come up (e.g. someone asking, “Is this the right thing to do?”), but the Emanuel team consistently seems to have its eye on the ball: Do everything possible to ensure Team Emanuel’s message wins the day.
After the release of the McDonald shooting video, the Emanuel team seems taken aback at the virulence of the protests and the extent of the national response to the video. At one point, Communications Director Kelley Quinn says about a relatively tame December 1 New York Times Editorial suggesting Emanuel has lost credibility, “Well, I knew it’d be bad but this is ridiculous.”
To ensure message consistency, the emails show the Emanuel press team to be in regular, close communication with other city agencies, including the heads of communications from the Police Department, Chicago Public Schools and the Independent Police Review Authority. While it’s not surprising that former IPRA Executive Director Scott Ando and Chief of Staff Larry Merritt were in contact with the Mayor’s communications team on an issue that involved them, the level of guidance they received is surprising. Rather than setting an independent communications strategy for IRPA, on multiple occasions Ando and Merritt checked with Mayoral staff to see if they should even respond to press requests for interviews and for guidance on specific reporter requests.
In April, Mayoral Deputy Communications Director Adam Collins writes, “I found out a bit ago that IPRA’s PIO talked to Monica [Davey from New York Times] about the structure of IPRA and how they operate without checking in with me (and despite the fact I had already reached out to coordinate earlier in the day).”
Some other observations from the New Year’s Eve FOIA dump:
Prior to the video release, there was a great deal of discussion between the press office and Law Department about how to honor FOIA requests. While freelancer Jamie Kalven was moving for the video release in court, Sun Times columnist Laura Washington and Tribune crime reporter Jeremy Gorner were pressing Emanuel staff for details on the circumstances surrounding the McDonald video and shooting as early as January 2015.
A few local politicians are referenced as clear friends of the Mayor’s office in attempts to influence reporters: Ald. Will Burns (4), Ald. George Cardenas(12), Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) and Ald. Carrie Austin (34) as well as State Senator Kwame Raoul. Austin at one point goes so far as to run proposed press release language by Mayoral staff.
Early every morning Mayor Emanuel receives an email with top press issues of the day and suggested talking points. While not unusual, this sort of message guidance is not typical. Many top politicos resist a “message of the day”, preferring to speak more extemporaneously. Clearly not Emanuel. Anyone who has watched Emanuel’s press conferences can see evidence of his strong message discipline.
Mayoral communications staff seem to pay much closer attention to television reporting than other outlets. The emails suggest they closely monitor morning and evening broadcasts and respond with much more urgency to TV than to a print or digital media request.
Mayoral staff put an enormous amount of energy into the December 2 Politico Q&A with Mike Allen, clearly thinking the event would be an opportunity to shape national thinking. Instead the event was overtaken by Emanuel’s anger over Allen revealing his Cuba holiday vacation plans.
Deputy Mayor Ken Bennett and Mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Vance Henry seem to be the point persons to gather information on protestors and organizers.
When protests really began to roll, Vance Henry, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and other Mayoral staffers attempted to track the when and where of every protest. One email chain on December 7 with Dep. Chief Operating Officer Lisa Laws seems to suggest she was monitoring the protests using city surveillance cameras at the OEMC control room.