Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s communications director is launching a strategic marketing campaign aimed at bringing "maximum exposure" to the governor and his programs, according to a memo sent to dozens of state employees.
Communications Director Paul E. Schurick's memo Tuesday said the effort is in its fledgling stages but will call on public information officers for every state agency to "help deliver a coordinated message."
It will involve a more aggressive schedule of public appearances for Ehrlich (R) and will build on such recent marketing efforts as a $1.4 million advertising blitz for the state's tourism office that featured Ehrlich in a tool belt, offering to help a couple install a ceiling fan in their living room.
"Do other governors go this far?" Ehrlich asks as he climbs a ladder and works on the fan in the ad that aired in neighboring states and on cable television in Maryland. "I think not."
Schurick predicts that the result will be "a statewide communications and marketing structure unlike any this or, to my knowledge, any other state has attempted."
The effort, according to political science professors familiar with the memo, indicates that Ehrlich is starting to make use of his office to build the foundation for a 2006 re-election campaign.
"He's doing what all successful governors do, which is to capitalize on his position to get the message out," said James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland. "To me, it sounds like he's made a plain political calculation that he's going to have to start early and generate some momentum for a very tough re-election bid."
Donald F. Norris, a political science professor from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, agreed. "I'd be surprised if they weren't doing that," he said.
Norris does, however, question the use of the state's vast contingent of department-level public information officers, who were all recipients of the memo.
"Anything that comes out of the governor's office is going to be political, and we expect that," Norris said. "What we don't expect is that the departments of state government will be used as a PR tool for the governor. That's the line. That's where I'd draw it."
The memo is the latest evidence of Ehrlich's growing comfort with the political advantages afforded by incumbency -- an edge that will be crucial as he seeks to again win over an electorate in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1.
The governor showed he had an eye for such opportunities last month, when he broke from the tradition of signing new legislation in the State House and instead asked legislative leaders to the signing of his Chesapeake Bay restoration bill on a tall ship moored in the Annapolis Harbor. The ceremony had all the markings of a campaign appearance, with live orchestra music, American flags flapping in the breeze and children brought from a nearby Catholic school, in uniform, to pose with the governor.
A professional camera crew was on hand to film the event, and the director at the scene, Doug Dubin, said his team was hired by Ed Blakely. Blakely, 61, is a former Alexandria advertising executive hired last year by the Ehrlich administration and named in Schurick's memo as the governor's head of "strategic communications," a new position.
Blakely, according to the Schurick memo, is an expert at "branding and strategic communications" and is coordinating the effort to "identify opportunities to create promotional events with the governor."
Interviewed Friday, Blakely said he believes his most important mandate is to make sure the state's resources are being used in the most efficient manner to get out the governor's message.
"What we want to do is to make sure the citizens of Maryland know the government is going to be well managed and that they have a governor who has taken an interest in that," Blakely said.
A similar goal was the focus of a new initiative forwarded by Ehrlich's budget director last week, asking the heads of state agencies to prioritize spending so that the most money will be directed to programs that meet the governor's goals and campaign promises.
In that effort, cabinet officials and agency directors were asked to prioritize spending on programs that focused on Ehrlich's "five pillars": education, public safety, health and the environment, commerce and fiscal responsibility.
Ehrlich administration officials say the strategic communications initiative and the budget reorganization are not part of a coordinated effort to set the stage for his re-election.
"Contrary to popular belief, we are not running for re-election, running a campaign, from inside the State House," press secretary Greg Massoni said. "The governor is performing the function of running the state of Maryland. His mandate was that we were going to make Maryland more efficient. This is nothing more than that."
But the executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party said that denying the political implications of this plan is disingenuous.
"I don't think there's any question that Ehrlich's public relations arm is going to use every public entity at his disposal to further his public image and work towards his re-election," Josh White said. "That's not to say he's doing it in an unethical way. But people should take a hard look at whether this is a public relations campaign for the governor or something that benefits the people of Maryland."
Schurick was not available last week to elaborate on the three-page memo. He is traveling in Africa with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R). Nevertheless, the memo is quite detailed about its goals.
In part, it is what Massoni describes -- an attempt to make the communications apparatus more efficient. The memo asks for an inventory of cameras, teleprompters, lighting equipment, sound systems and production equipment. And it asks for a list of the staff members in each agency who have experience with marketing, media relations and other related specialties.
But it also describes a dramatic change to the state's promotional activities and appears to center them on the goals of the governor and the governor himself.
"In order to get maximum exposure, the governor has agreed to aggressively increase his availability to appear at agency events in order to gain wider exposure, and thus helping promote state agencies to their constituencies," Schurick wrote.
The memo also discloses the creation of two new positions in Schurick's office. Blakely assumes the strategic communications post. Dennis Castleman -- who had served as an economic development official in charge of tourism, film and the arts -- will become the state marketing officer. Castleman was responsible for the tourism ads, which ran in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in addition to cable stations in Maryland.
Gimpel said such promotions serve a governmental purpose but also help politically.
"This is one of the big advantages of incumbency," Gimpel said.