PR Nightmare

Terrell Bolton didn't get much help when dealing with the media

Former police Chief Terrell Bolton doesn't have many people in the media who consider him a friend, but the person on the phone uses that word when describing him. The source, a longtime hard-news reporter, agrees that Bolton is his own worst enemy but follows that by saying he is not a bad guy, not a bad cop. "He just didn't gird himself properly for war."

The reporter says that he spoke with Bolton, who took office in October 1999, about preparing himself for the tough job ahead and the importance of allying himself with a top-notch media handler, someone who could cajole or browbeat the press sharks when needed. Bolton needed a media adviser in the mode of Clinton's James Carville or Bush's Karen Hughes.

"He knew he was going to be a target from the second he put on his badge," the reporter says. "It would not let up. And I told him, 'You need a person who knows what the hell they're doing to help you through this.'"

He sighs. "But what he got was a sweet little girl. She was a good producer, a good person. But the bottom line is this: She didn't know what the hell she was doing. In my opinion, hiring her was the single biggest mistake of his tenure."

The "her" in question is Janice Houston. In April 2001, she became special assistant to Bolton and was put in charge of the Dallas Police Department's media relations office. Even though you've probably never heard of her, she is as much to blame as anyone for Bolton's untidy demise.

To prove this, let's look at what a media manager should do. Houston should have been the liaison between Bolton and the media. She should have helped shape coverage of the chief by giving reporters the disingenuous ass-kissing they crave and giving Bolton the closed-door ass-chewing every public servant in power needs.

She got this backward. Every single day.

What's that, Chief Bolton? You want to know if it's a good idea if you ignore investigative reporters but stage news conferences the day damaging stories break? Sure. You want me to say you're unavailable any time a reporter we can't control calls? Gotcha. You want me to keep an enemies list of media we won't deal with, ever, because they ask tough questions? Where's my pen!? You want me to shield you from the mayor, other city leaders, even other police officers so that you never, ever have to act like a grown-up and take responsibility for your (in)action? Done.

Almost from the beginning, her missteps were so comical it was hard to believe that Houston, a former line producer at WFAA-Channel 8, had 13 years of media experience. On December 31, 2001, hours after Channel 8 reported that officers were being investigated in the fake-drug/immigrant scandal, Bolton held a news conference to quell the controversy. (And that worked well, didn't it?) At this press gathering, guns and assault rifles were stacked on tables next to the seized "drugs." This, of course, implied that even though the drugs may have been fake, these were still good arrests because, hell, look at all the scary guns we caught 'em with.

Of course, it soon came out that those guns had nothing to do with the suspicious drug arrests. As Bolton's special assistant and media department overlord, Houston never should have allowed that to happen. "That said so much to me," says a police reporter. "It showed that they were so willing to deceive and spin. And that continued throughout Janice's time there."

Houston at once takes issues with and ignores these claims. She says that everyone has opinions and, in a calm, classy way, suggests she will not get involved in mudslinging. "I deal with facts, not opinions," she says. Yet she continually notes that she is one of a team of people working in media relations. No. She is the boss, and she was special assistant to Bolton. She must take responsibility, and not just for returning reporters' phone calls, which is 5 percent of the job. Also, she says some reporters who "didn't follow the rules" may have indeed felt frustrated dealing with the DPD. Rule No. 1, according to reporters I talked to, was to ask questions on bended knee.

There are other examples you can use to damn her performance. They fall into two categories: the things she did and the things she didn't do.

Things she did: One stands out to me. When Bolton held a "police academy for the media," in which he tried to help foster better media relations, he made a comment about former Dallas Cowboy Dwayne Goodrich, who had just been arrested--not tried, not convicted--on suspicion of being involved in a hit-and-run. (Goodrich later was convicted of criminally negligent homicide.) Bolton told the reporters, "As a police chief, I would have liked to see him dragged down the street in handcuffs." When the newspaper gave Houston a chance to clarify her boss' statement, she said, according to The Dallas Morning News, "the chief understood the remarks to have been made in confidence to 40 or so media representatives."

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