How to Work the PRESS

(’Cause otherwise, the press works you)


Over the holidays, a story that had been percolating for some months finally reached a hard boil: The case of the non-performing economic incentive money ceded to Jerome Brown BBQ, D/B/A “CoWealth,” under the aegis of job creation in NW Jacksonville back in 2011.

As has been widely discussed, the barbecue sauce plant didn’t really create the jobs it was supposed to create. The city is vexed, and the deadline for CoWealth to come through on reimbursing some of the $640,000 in loans and grants it received for creating jobs that never materialized was last week.

Even before that deadline, however, trouble loomed.

On Dec. 20, the plant was raided by the FBI, the IRS, HUD, the Small Business Administration and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Councilwoman Katrina Brown, Jerome’s daughter, told me earlier this year that she owns a “very small percentage” of CoWealth.

CoWealth is attempting to sell the building; however, the $1.5 million asking price would not satisfy its obligations, which include
a primary mortgage of $2.65 million. It’s going to be left to lawyers from both sides to explain what exactly happened there, and why the sauce plant didn’t become the job engine that people in Northwest Jacksonville might have expected.

One thing is certain: Councilwoman Brown could have handled this whole mess better as it festered on the front page of the T-U for most of 2016.

Brown, in stiff-arming the T-U’s questions (and mine), finally offered a voice presenting her perspective in late December. That voice is familiar to consumers of local news: her attorney, Curtis Fallgatter.

Is Brown — or, more correctly, the family business — “guilty” of anything beyond not fulfilling job creation goals? Narratives abound. One that is pushed is the Jerome Brown family’s political activity, which included active support for Corrine Brown and Alvin Brown (no relation in either case), was funded in part by city grants and loans.

Katrina Brown denies this, of course.

There is another matter worth noting: the COJ $380K second mortgage and the COJ subordination agreement signed in February 2012 by Karen Bowling, Mayor Brown’s deputy chief administrative officer. This put the COJ in second position behind Biz Capital and the $2,652,600 SBA loan.

The whole thing is a mess, and it appears likely that some of this narrative will end up in a courtroom, which is not necessarily what the city or the councilwoman want.

Would this have been less messy if Brown had been able (or willing) to articulate what was going on to the media?

Katrina Brown is not alone when it comes to shutting out the media when news cycles turn ugly.

Her council colleague, Reggie Gaffney, had some rough news cycles in the last year or so. Questions about his apparent homestead exemption double-dipping popped up in December 2015. Then Corrine Brown was served a subpoena in January, which also raised questions, given the seeming symbiosis of the Gaffney/Brown relationship, a dynamic which frayed in 2013 after Gaffney ran into trouble for overbilling Medicaid via his nonprofit.

Gaffney eventually did an interview with the T-U. But the interview didn’t go well. And he told me as much after it ran.

“People believe the Times-Union is a racist paper. That’s what people are saying,” Gaffney said, estimating that “over 50 people called me, believed it was a witch hunt that [Chris Hong] wrote a story on me. I don’t even know him.”

The Katrina Brown and Reggie Gaffney stories have some commonalities: Both are Democrats on the City Council, and both find themselves occasionally going against the grain of the rest of the body.

Also a commonality is that neither of them gave real thought toward crafting a damage control narrative until the damage could no longer be controlled, thus hazarding unnecessary risk to political capital they otherwise might have had.

Smart politicians avoid these pitfalls. They get ahead of narratives before they hit the front pages, cultivating members of the media to present them in sympathetic ways.

Consider Jacksonville’s mayor, whose political operation is active and separate from the policy operation inside City Hall. Other smart politicians hire the best and the brightest from the local press corps to handle their messaging.

Exhibit A right now is incoming State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who brought in the Daily Record’s ace reporter Dave Chapman to handle her comms. Nelson is a political neophyte; Chapman has seen it all and covered most of it, and when a story gets nasty, as will be the case as Nelson cleans up after Angela Corey, it is ideal to have a smart reporter on hand to help frame the narrative.

The difference between smart politicians and sitting ducks is how they choose to deal with the inevitability of gnarly news cycles.

Some take affirmative steps to shape the narrative. And some are shaped by the narrative.

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