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Fenty Tries Too Hard to Control the Message, Critics Say

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has long been criticized for seeking the spotlight, but his performance during the past two days rubbed already raw nerves, causing friction between Metro and city officials. The assertive posture that has defined his term as mayor drew complaints behind the scenes about his controlling behavior in the 24 hours after the crash.

Fenty's decision to funnel information about the Metro crash through his office even irked some city employees, who were not permitted to speak to the media or people in other agencies, often leaving officials in the dark.

His penchant for control was also blamed for inaccurate information he gave at a news conference yesterday, when he said seven people had died in the crash, even though Metro and public safety officials had confirmed nine deaths.

"The spirit of cooperation is not what we would like it to be," Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said.

Public relations experts recommended that a city's chief executive take the lead during a major crisis, such as the Metro train crash or the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this month. A nationally televised moment can move the public and make a politician. Think then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), whose leadership during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised his national profile and popularity.

But Fenty (D), 38, who is routinely criticized for rarely sharing credit with members of the D.C. Council, might have over-managed the aftermath of the Metro accident, which initially was overseen by D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

The confusion over the number of casualties -- even as Fenty stood with Metro officials at the news conference -- emerged as a particular sore spot. A Metro source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials were debating whether they should count those dead people who had not been pulled from the wreckage, and Fenty apparently decided that he should not.

"It indicates that we're not really on top of it if we can't count to nine," said Tony Bullock, senior vice president of Washington-based Ogilvy Government Relations, who was press secretary to Anthony A. Williams (D) when Williams was mayor.

Fenty said in an interview that he was using "an abundance of caution" in releasing information and that he might have overdone it. "Obviously, there's always things that could have been done differently," he said.

He also suggested that he would be less visible during the next few days. Yesterday evening's news conference would be the last run by the city government because the investigation has been taken over by the National Transportation Safety Board.

When Fenty was a council member, his colleagues complained that he was always on the scene and ready to be quoted. In his first term as mayor, he has reined in his comments and those of his staff members. Although Fenty holds many more news conferences than did Williams, Fenty's briefings are apt to be about such events as ribbon-cuttings for dog parks. And he tends to deflect reporters' off-the-topic questions with a promise to get back to them later.

The mayor's communications office exercises increasing control over information. Liaisons from the office oversee news conferences and releases handled by the communications staffs of city departments.

The mayor should not apply that management style to a disaster, some council members said.

"At some point we have to transition to what we can do better as a city. One of those . . . is when it comes to communicating," said council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who is a member of the Metro board.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Metro board, said that he did not feel slighted by the mayor's handling of the crash and that he thought he had been kept well informed. Graham, known as a Fenty ally, said the mayor should have the authority to lead the city in a crisis.

Bullock and nationally known public relations guru Fraser Seitel agreed that Fenty was right to be the face of the District and to control the message.

Bullock said he would give Fenty high marks for his handling of the situation. Seitel, who runs a public relations firm in New Jersey, said he was not in town to see the mayor's day-to-day performance. But a catastrophe can make or break a politician, he said. "It's a test of leadership," Seitel said. "As a leader, you can ruin yourself in a crisis."

Staff writer Lena Sun contributed to this report.

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