Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry had a busy schedule last week -- an invitation to the White House, a commencement speech to the graduating class at Bladensburg High School and a panel discussion with other suburban leaders on the future of the Washington area.
But Curry (D) did not send out a news release or convene a news conference to discuss his participation at the events. Assisted by a single press coordinator, he only began distributing his weekly schedule earlier this year -- his fifth year in office -- and not by choice. The Washington Post had to request it under the Maryland Public Information Act.
Curry's approach to public relations is a far cry from that taken by his next-door neighbor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). Duncan's administration sends out an average of 12 news releases a week and has five public information officers who make sure the media is aware of events big and small, including his appearances at libraries and changes in county bus schedules.
Both executives have good relationships with the media. But their press operations are as different as their management styles.
Duncan fancies himself a big-city mayor, running government by press conference and public appearances. Curry manages his government like the business executive he once was. He rarely discusses his thinking in public or uses the media to test the waters for a new policy initiative. Yet he is never short on words when it comes to selling his product -- Prince George's County -- even when his remarks stray into hyperbole.
Both men defend their approaches, and neither has been hurt politically, judging by the overwhelming margins by which they were reelected.
Duncan said he relies on the media to show the taxpayers what kind of value they are getting for their dollars.
"It's not enough to do the job," Duncan said. "You have to tell people about it, and in order to do that, you have to be open, accessible. . . . Dealing with the media is an extension of what I do."
Curry, though, argues that too much exposure can backfire.
"Reporters get sick of you if you send them a press release that says you are scratching your left armpit with your right hand," Curry said.
Curry said he is never wanting for press attention. But he often complains that his county gets short shrift from the media, especially in comparison with Montgomery. He said he is limited in how much money he can spend on public relations because the county has a voter-mandated tax cap.
Some contend that Curry hurts himself by not engaging the public more and by not making himself more accessible to the media, particularly if he decides to make a run for governor in 2002.
John A. Lally, who was press secretary to one of Curry's predecessors, Winfield Kelly Jr., said Curry has made it difficult for the public to assess what his political agenda has been. Most people know that he is the first African American elected to the county's top post and that he is a self-made man, Lally said. But many people have little idea of what he has done.
"I don't really know what his message is except Prince George's is a good place to do business," Lally said.
County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) said Curry could make better use of the media. "He misses opportunities to speak out . . . to get policy acceptance and to communicate his agenda."
Too much media attention can bring trouble, too. In Montgomery, Duncan has drawn criticism from County Council members who say his media operation spends too much time promoting the county executive and not enough time promoting the county. Council members recently voted to eliminate one position, and they hired their own spokesman, Patrick Lacefield, who once handled public relations for the Teamsters, to head their press office.
Some say there really is no right or wrong way to manage the media.
Peter Krauser, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Curry comes across in the press as a gifted orator. "He has the gift for the colorful phrase," he said.
"Doug very effectively uses the media to advance his legislative agenda," Krauser said. "He is a consummate politician and very adept at using the media to advance his public policy."
CAPTION: Wayne K. Curry rarely uses the media to gauge the popularity of his plans.