De Blasio Deputy Mayor Praises ‘Terrific’ Press Team in Face of Criticism

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at the Heavenly Visions Church in the Bronx Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at the Heavenly Visions Church in the Bronx on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Credit: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks to the press last Sunday. (Photo: Ed Reed/NYC Mayor’s Office)

First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris today defended his new administration’s press shop, which has come under growing fire in recent weeks after a series of alleged faux pas.

During a Crain’s New York Business breakfast this morning, Mr. Shorris was asked directly whether the mayor needed to beef up his communications team, which includes a handful of veteran campaign staffers, but few with extensive experience in the notoriously difficult New York City media scene.

“Do you think it might be wise to hire a communications director, which he has not chosen to do, and doesn’t appear to intend to do?” asked moderator Erik Engquist, the assistant managing editor of the paper. “We had the backtracking on the Upper East Side plowing, he had the speeding motorcade, the call to the NYPD [on behalf of an early campaign supporter, who’d been arrested], even eating pizza with a fork—I think an experienced press team would have said: ‘Don’t do that!’” Mr. Engquist also pointed to last week’s lobbying day in Albany, when, “The mayor completely lost control of the narrative to Eva Moskowitz and Gov. Cuomo.”

But Mr. Shorris swiftly side-stepped the question, ribbing Mr. Engquist for focusing on matters that Mr. de Blasio has long dismissed as “sideshows.”

“So it’s good I think, Eric, that there are all important issues for us to be taking about,” the soft-spoken Mr. Shorris said to applause from the crowd. “Let’s just try and talk about what matters,” he said, noting that “the circus is fun to talk about” but not something he’s involved in.

“My job [as] sort of bureaucrat-in-chief is to focus on the governance of the city … My wife’s Italian-American and we have a lot of discussions at home about the right way to eat our pizza and our pasta. But we’re working to stay focused,” he said.

Bill de Blasio’s press team has been the subject of a series of articles chronicling alleged miscalculations and increasingly hostile relations between with the city’s press corps. At one point last month, Mr. de Blasio stormed out of a press conference, refusing to take questions after his motorcade was caught speeding through stop signs days after announcing a road safety initiative. He also dodged question following the bishop incident, letting the story linger for days.

“There have been several instances when the sideshows have been amplified by a puzzling media strategy, from the mayor not immediately taking questions about his police caravan speeding through the streets of Queens, to the selective announcement of events on his public schedule, to his irritating disregard for punctuality,” read one piece in City & State. In Capital New York, political-operative-turned-pundit Blake Zeff outlined the “startlingly toxic relationship” between Mr. de Blasio and the press corps under the headline “How de Blasio can fix his press problem.”

After the speech today, Mr. Shorris was pressed on whether he thought the office’s press team needed to be restructured, as Mr. Engquist had suggested.

“No, I think our communications team is doing fine,” Mr. Shorris told the Observer. “I think we’re actually doing–well look, we have a strong, broad, diverse and experienced communications staff with folks from Washington, New York , elsewhere. I think we have a terrific team going right now. But I think we have a complicated set of challenges. And that’s really what we’re reflecting.”

“Everybody wants to blame somebody. The reality is, these things are hard and they’re going to take a little bit of time,” he added. “It’s nine weeks in. We have a little ways to go.”

Even some close to the mayor have questioned the choices made his press shop, with some suggesting the strategy is at least partially responsible for his lackluster poll numbers last week.

“One thing that is huge and that is really clear is that they underestimate the importance of the tabloids and have not figured out how to deal with them,” said one source familiar with the de Blasio operation. “The reality in New York City is that a lot of the public perception of the mayor is driven by the tabloids because the tabloids drive TV coverage. And between the tabloids and TV coverage, he’s gotten really, really poor stories for the past seven weeks.”

“That absolutely moves the numbers,” the source said.

“I blame his press team for the low poll numbers,” another Democratic insider added in an email. “Nothing monumental has happened in his first few months to warrant those low poll numbers so you’d have to point a finger at the Mayor’s messengers. Is the new Administration a giant mess? Absolutely not. Things are running just fine and he is assembling a terrific team but that message is not being delivered or properly conveyed … the Mayor’s press team are allowing the reporters to drive the narrative.”

“The gloves are off,” the person said. “Now the Mayor’s press team needs to learn how to stick and move.”