D.C. Schools Chanceller Rhee taps media adviser Anita Dunn to help improve image

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, whose image has been frayed by a series of high-profile news controversies, is turning to former White House communications director and veteran Democratic media consultant Anita Dunn for help.

A D.C. schools spokeswoman confirmed Friday that the agency is negotiating a contract with Dunn's firm, Squier Knapp Dunn. The objective is to more effectively handle the heavy load of local and national news media attention that Rhee attracts and to help roll out major stories to greater strategic advantage. The spokeswoman said Dunn has devoted time to District school issues but would not elaborate.

Dunn is expected, however, to assist with an announcement of the long-awaited labor contract between the District and the Washington Teachers' Union, which could be finalized in the next few weeks.

"We hope to get her wisdom and advice on how to handle things. She has incredible experience," said Marrianne McMullen, chief of staff to Peggy O'Brien, Rhee's head of family and public engagement. McMullen added that Dunn's contract would be paid for with private donations.

McMullen said the other key figure in the arrangement is Stefan Friedman, president of Squier Knapp Dunn's New York subsidiary, KnickerbockerSKD. Schools officials have met with Friedman, a former New York Post reporter and editorial writer, who has worked with the New York City school system on communications matters, McMullen said.

Dunn, who returned an e-mail message but did not comment, is a veteran of numerous national and local campaigns, including Barack Obama's 2008 presidential race and the bid for the Democratic nomination by former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.) in 2000. She was also a longtime adviser to former Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and has worked as a media consultant to former Montgomery County executive Douglas M. Duncan. Her firm's Web site says that its "creative strategic problem solvers help some of the world's most recognized political officials, public advocacy organizations and corporate brands tell their stories."

In addition to aiding politicians such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the firm has worked with labor unions such as the Communications Workers of America and Service Employees International and nonprofit groups.

Dunn left her White House post, which she took on an interim basis, in November. She was perhaps best known during her West Wing tenure for her offensive against Fox News, which she called "a wing of the Republican Party." Shortly after she left her job, her husband, Bob Bauer, became White House counsel.

Dunn continues to advise the White House on an informal basis. But McMullen said Dunn's administration ties have nothing to do with the consulting work she will do for D.C. schools.

"There's no connection with the Obama White House," she said.

Supporters and critics of the chancellor have said that she would benefit from more sophisticated communications advice. Although Rhee has attracted wide attention for her school reform efforts, she has drawn almost as much notoriety for statements and gestures considered politically maladroit and damaging.

Rhee drew extensive criticism for appearing on the cover of Time magazine in late 2008 with a broomstick to symbolize her attempts to overhaul the school system. She touched off a four-day furor this year when she told Fast Company magazine that an unspecified number of the 266 District public school teachers fired in October had had sex with students or been suspended for administering corporal punishment. When Rhee supplied the numbers, it turned out that just one teacher of those dismissed was under investigation for sexual misconduct allegations and five had been disciplined for physical abuse.

A Washington Post poll in January found that Rhee's job approval rating has slipped sharply over the past two years, from 59 percent to 43 percent, despite sentiment among D.C. residents that the city's long-struggling school system is starting to improve.

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