PR Consultant Helped Palin Grab Spotlight
Friday, October 10, 2008
During her first months in office, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin kept a relatively light schedule on her workdays in Juneau, making ceremonial appearances at sports events and funerals, meeting with state lawmakers, and conducting interviews with Alaska magazines, radio stations and newspapers.
But this spring, Palin's official calendar chronicles an extraordinary rise to national prominence. A fresh face in Republican politics, she was discovered by the national news media at least in part because of a determined effort by a state agency to position her as an oil and gas expert who could tout Alaska's determined effort to construct a natural gas pipeline.
An outside public relations expert hired under a $31,000 contract with the state Department of Natural Resources pitched the "upstart governor" as a crusader against Big Oil, a story line that Palin has adopted in her campaign as Sen. John McCain's running mate. The contract was the only time the Palin administration hired an outside consultant to set up media interviews, a function performed in many states by government employees.
At the state Capitol, Palin agreed to be "shadowed" for days by some national reporters, and her dealings with the legislature dropped off so dramatically that some House and Senate members donned red-and-white "Where's Sarah?" buttons to show their disapproval. But her high-visibility campaign paid off, helping Palin win notice from political pundits, who began including her on lists of long-shot choices for the GOP vice presidential spot.
"We were glad she was out there promoting energy development," said Alaska state Rep. Jay Ramras (R), an occasional critic of Palin. "Who would have guessed the self-promoting element would have led to such an improbable move, to place her on the ticket, but it worked."
Palin's gubernatorial calendar, obtained by The Washington Post under the Alaska Public Records Act, adds to the understanding of Palin as a political phenomenon, a governor from an obscure state who exploded onto the national stage after just 21 months in office. While many factors played a role in Palin's rise, including her background in broadcast journalism and the appeal of her life story, she also benefited from expert counsel on how to take her message to a national audience.
Palin made energy a priority as she took office in December 2006. Much of her time was devoted to discussions of a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline that would deliver natural gas from the North Slope of Alaska to the lower 48 states. The issue had long been controversial, but Palin vowed to tackle it without making too many concessions to oil companies. Her first contact with Washington came on Jan. 17, 2007, when the vice president called her to discuss the project, the calendar shows.
In early January 2007, Palin met with Marathon Oil executives, and the next month, while attending a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, she met privately with Exxon Mobil executives, including the president of production at the time. The conference also provided her first audience with President Bush, who hosted the governors at the White House.
But Palin's typical day during her first months in office was far more mundane, the calendar shows. Her schedule shows long gaps in her official business on school holidays, appearances at local events and festivals, and frequent out-of-town trips with a child or two in tow.
Meetings on the pipeline became regular features on her calendar, and the Department of Natural Resources wanted to heighten national attention on it, said Kurt Gibson, a member of Palin's oil and gas team. Despite the project's "unprecedented" nature, state officials were not attracting the interest of national media, he said.
"We are a small state far removed from major media markets. We needed someone with expertise. The objective was to raise national awareness of the project," Gibson said. "It benefits not just the state of Alaska, but Americans in general. We want the public to understand this."
Gibson said Palin was an articulate advocate for the project and "the best person to deliver that message."