Home Virginia Politics McDonnell’s Puzzling PR Strategy; And Who’s Paying for His High-Priced Lawyers?

McDonnell’s Puzzling PR Strategy; And Who’s Paying for His High-Priced Lawyers?


by Paul Goldman

While the two polls – PPP and Quinnipiac – have big differences, they both point to one conclusion: what the heck are Gov. Bob McDonnell’s lawyers thinking? They have clearly put the SHUT UP BOB mouth guard on the guv, for His Excellency has had the worst possible PR strategy for months: that is to say, refuse to comment to the maximum extent possible. Same for his wife, although that is probably a good thing. His kids are silent, he has no public defenders at all except for some anonymous sources.

PR WISE THEN: a most puzzling strategy in terms of the POLITICS of the situation. As a lawyer, I understand the need NOT to say or do anything which might incriminate yourself, or antagonize the prosecutors should they feel your comments put them in a bad light.

I get that. But between THE SILENT TREATMENT and NON STOP YADA, YADA, YADA is a lot of ground: surely a smart PR person can find some high ground for the GUV, a good perch to launch some counter-offensive to the Washington Post, et. al, while not teeing off the federales.

Easy? Of course not. But the Governor just hired a major DC PR guy. He ain’t cheap. They say he isn’t being paid by the Governor’s PAC. They say it is private money. They didn’t say who is paying. But someone is paying, he, perhaps his firm, are on the clock 24/7 with this stuff.

INDEED: Who is paying for the Governor’s growing legal defense? Already, it includes not only this new PR maven, Rich Galen, but yet another big-time (as in BIG BUCKS!) lawyer, John Brownlee, the former top federale in Western Virginia, appointed by President Bush upon the recommendation of Senators John Warner and George Allen. Brownlee is a mayor player in the DC white collar defense bar. He is a real lawyer, highly respected. He just got hired. He ain’t cheap either. Who is paying for Big John?


Moreover, this makes the second BIG BUCKS lawyer on the McD legal defense team. The other is a partner in the an even more expensive and more powerful law firm.

How many senior DC lawyers – the Governor also has former VA AG Tony Troy, one of the state’s top lawyers, on his team – does it take to defend a case of failing to report a gift on your state disclosure form? Answer: ZERO. This means press reports about the Guv and/or Ms. Guv being under a federal probe into something other than failure to report gifts are true.

All of which raises a question THE FEDS AND I HAVE IN COMMON HERE: Who is paying for the Governor’s lawyers? These boys will run through $100K fast, through $250K fast. Unlike Morrissey and Goldman, LLC, they don’t defend people for free. These boys are all cash and carry: no ticket, no laundry, you pay at the door, you can go across town to Legal Aide. Is the person paying for the lawyers also paying for the PR strategy?

Bringing me full circle: The Governor’s PR strategy makes no sense to…THE PEOPLE OF VIRGINIA.

The polls don’t lie. They say a critical mass of Virginians have not made up their minds on the mess in good measure because they want to hear the Governor’s side of the story.

They have the Washington Post/VA media side of the story, they have the political gurus and McD Democratic opponents side of the story: and it isn’t favorable to the Governor. BUT most Virginians want to hear from McD before finalizing their view of the mess. So I ask: Why hasn’t the boy said something, gone on statewide TV, etc? He could get the coverage, no doubt, to explain the situation.

IF we have is a mess created by being too cute with lax gift laws, then there is a PR strategy which can help the GUV big time. True, he would have to admit being dumb, have to admit that he and his family were too eager to enjoy some of the perks of power, that they were too close to Mr. Williams: but it was a mistake of judgment, an ethical lapse, not criminal intent, not a complete moral breakdown.

In other words: The Governor would have to admit making mistakes due to avarice, vanity, indeed shame that he had screwed up on buying expensive real estate and then tried to legally keep that from the public by getting loans to keep his investments afloat.

NOT GOOD IMAGERY for sure: but that horse has long been out of the barn. The Governor’s image IS GOING TO SUFFER ONE WAY OR THE OTHER. So it is a question only of DAMAGE CONTROL. That’s what PR is all about in this type of mess: giving people a reason so they can give you the benefit of the doubt if they are so inclined.

Republicans and most independents seem to want to give McD the benefit of the doubt: they don’t think he is Virginia’s Richard Nixon. Thus the title to this piece: Why is McDonnell not fighting back in the media? The only possible answer: His lawyers have convinced him to stay mute to the maximum extent possible. THIS HAS BEEN THE WRONG PR STRATEGY. Moreover, it is puzzling. UNLESS…the federales have made it clear they are on his case big time for whatever reason.

Bottom line: Two polls come to the same conclusion, namely that McD is hurting himself by not doing damage control and giving people a plausible reason why someone they respected is getting all this bad press.

Perhaps the Governor’s strategy is this: Take the heat, convince the federales to leave him alone, and then counter-attack against the Post, et. al. for unfair reporting, etc. BAD IDEA, even if true. No PR strategy can put the toothpaste back into the tube.

McDonnell either does damage control now, or he suffers considerable, irreversible damage no matter how many lawyers he hires to solve his legal problems. Given all the money – THE PUBLIC NEEDS TO KNOW WHO – someone is paying for his high-priced lawyers, and for his new PR guy. You would think their collective minds could develop a better press strategy for His Excellency.

SO FAR, they have not. The polls say this is a big political mistake. Indeed, if McDonnell fought back, he could help Cuccinelli a lot in my view. So the big winner for McDonnell’s PR failure is likely to be the Dem ticket, with the GOP the big losers. Unless MCD has far more serious federal problems than we know, his current PR strategy is a total puzzlement to Virginia voters.