Bloggers open the floodgate on mayor
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After making the personal and painful announcement Monday that he and his wife had separated, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl added the warning that the couple had retained the services of Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague to address privacy matters.
Mr. Sprague, in explaining his role, made it clear to those in the media that if they reported "rumor or innuendo ... I will sue them."
The gauntlet appears to have been first picked up sometime Tuesday evening on an Internet site called Pensblog, where anonymous posters share their thoughts from behind the veil of cryptic online identities.
"Luke overcooked my Thanksgiving turkey," someone posted.
"Luke moves your folding chair and parks in your space anyway," another wrote.
"Luke eats Frosted Flakes for breakfast, then appoints them to board positions."
That's just a sampling of the nonsensical onslaught that has been crackling across Twitter and various blogs this week. And it's all aimed at the mayor.
"It just went crazy," said Maria Lupinacci, a South Side political blogger. "There's got to be thousands and thousands. I probably spent a good 40 minutes on it because I was laughing so much.
"They just started posting very ridiculous rumors, like 'Luke Ravenstahl invented Crystal Pepsi' or 'Luke wears his Steeler jersey to Pens games.' They can't talk honestly about things, so they're just going with rampant mockery."
The "they" that Ms. Lupinacci speaks of are the anonymous pranksters who are thumbing their electronic noses at the finger-wagging of an elected official and his growling lawyer.
"[Mr. Sprague] seems to want to shut down any conversation," Ms. Lupinacci said. "It does leave me with some concern. It has to. I think I'm being a lot more careful with my wording [regarding the mayor's separation]."
But the bloggers are running wild.
"Luke went to Primanti's ... and ordered pizza."
"Luke is the reason Oprah is stopping her show."
"Luke drinks milk straight from the carton."
"It's ridiculous. We've always been allowed to criticize our public officials. It's called Freedom of Speech," Ms. Lupinacci said. "The threat from the lawyer is so overboard, it actually extended the story. I wouldn't be posting on this story if they hadn't done that. I'm sorry, it made me mad, just like it made other people mad. So they're like, 'OK, we'll go with this, then.' "
Gene Grabowski, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a former reporter with The Associated Press, specializes in crisis communications at Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.,-based company that helps clients control the news that is swirling about them. Those who have turned to Levick include companies facing product recalls and celebrities, athletes and politicians linked to scandals.
Mr. Grabowski, a senior vice president with Levick, said Mr. Ravenstahl's strategy of doing one interview and then issuing a public statement is a common one that has worked well in numerous situations. For high-profile people in the national spotlight, the interview might be with Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey or Larry King. Mr. Ravenstahl, dealing on a local level, chose KDKA-TV's Marty Griffin.
"Where I might differ on the strategy, however, is the aggressive statements that his lawyer's making," Mr. Grabowski said.
"For two reasons. One, [the lawyer] himself is making the suggestion of defamatory statements and smears and innuendos. He's the one raising the negativity before the reporters even do.
"No. 2, his language seems unnecessarily aggressive and litigious. I'm reluctant to second-guess other people's strategies, but I would say that if I were still a news reporter, such a statement would set my teeth on edge and actually spur me, not only to be more curious about the circumstances, but probably even more aggressive in my pursuit of the story."
Mr. Grabowski said it's natural for people to wonder what is going on with the mayor. Mr. Ravenstahl, anticipating this, appears to be trying to stifle speculation, he said.
"But if you don't tell the story, the narrative is going to be supplied by your critics and your opponents and rumormongers," Mr. Grabowski said. "In the absence of information, people are going to make their own assumptions and gossip.
"I might suggest that the mayor and his wife would be better served by statements that are more understanding of the situation and respect reporters as much as they want to be respected themselves."
While the traditional news media are cowed by the threat of legal action, Mr. Grabowski said, the "social media" on the Internet are having a field day.
"The [blogs and Tweets] are driving the story," he said.
And while most of the suggestions are intended to be humorous, some are nasty.
Still, it's rare for a lawyer to go after those, especially when the people posting them are unlikely to have the financial resources of a TV station or newspaper.
"I wouldn't think anyone would sue someone for saying he invented Crystal Pepsi," Ms. Lupinacci said. "And they would have to get Twitter to identify the person, which would involve a lawsuit in itself."
Ms. Lupinacci said she appreciates that while the mayor has lived a public life, his wife, Erin, has not. Mr. Sprague has cautioned reporters that he represents both Ravenstahls and that Mrs. Ravenstahl will be protected through legal means.
"But I don't think Erin Ravenstahl needs this attorney, because I think people have a lot of goodwill toward her," Ms. Lupinacci said. "I think Pittsburghers like Erin Ravenstahl, and I don't think anybody wants to go after her. So the hiring of the lawyer is so transparent. It isn't for her benefit, it's for his benefit, for his political benefit."
Mr. Grabowski said there are things Mr. Ravenstahl could do to provide damage control, "to diffuse some of the pack mentality that he's created." Or, more importantly, to act before the Internet rumors turn serious and somehow credible.
"Three steps," he said. "First, ratchet back the aggressive statements and the talk of litigation. That's just inviting conflict.
"Secondly, begin really communicating with your constituents and the media, in terms that establish common ground. That doesn't mean that he has to say a lot, but he has to offer some information in a way that is less belligerent, not in a tone that creates more issues than it manages.
"And then I think it would be very smart for him to engage some third-party spokespeople, other than an attorney, who can buy him some space in the media by making statements in his defense and what he's going through. A lot of people go through divorces, and people understand how painful it is.
"It's not too late for him to open up a line of communication with his constituents through the media with statements that are a little more understanding of his audience."
First Published November 27, 2009 12:00 am