PR Nightmare

Every big-city police chief needs to know how to play the media game or hire someone who does. Bolton did neither.

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."

She argued, in effect, that the chief was just shootin' the breeze with 40 reporters whose job it is to document his every official action. Awesome.

Things she didn't do: too many from which to pick. She should have made Bolton available when Dallas Observer staff writer Thomas Korosec wrote his damning cover story ("Dallas' Chief Problem," January 16, 2003), so that Bolton could have addressed the low morale and anger toward him within the department. Before D magazine ran its anonymous police survey in March 2003, she should have hammered the editors on the fact it surveyed the largely white membership of the Dallas Police Association but couldn't convince the mostly minority Texas Peace Officers Association to take part. Then she should have talked the TPOA into cooperating, as she couldn't have stopped the survey but could have diluted its anti-Bolton findings. She should not have gone along with her boss and said that Dallas' high crime rate was basically beyond the control of the cops. Instead, she should have turned the blame toward the city council, pointing out that Dallas has fewer cops per 1,000 residents than other comparable big cities.

I have more, but you get the point.

To be fair, Bolton was not an easy client for a media manager. He was defensive and aloof. He acted as though any question regarding his authority was on its face absurd and probably racist. His high-top fade is out-of-date. Bottom line, though, she was paid to save Chief Bolton from himself, and she failed.

Look at our mayor, Laura Miller. Every week, she comes across as more controlled, more confident, more in charge. That's partially because she's smart and knows the media game. But it's also because Miller, who can be one thin-skinned hornet behind the scenes, surrounds herself with PR people who make sure she isn't alienating constituents in that evening's lead story. Rob Allyn makes sure her political image is like a jawbreaker--tough but sweet. And Crayton Webb, her chief of staff, is invaluable, too. For example, Miller didn't comment on this paper's recent Deep Ellum crime cover story that sparked the city's increased police response, but Webb answered reporter Zac Crain's questions and gave him enough of an official response that Miller didn't look callous. "Crayton totally gets it," says a City Hall reporter, "and he helps her out in so many ways people don't see."

Granted, even if Houston had spent her time behind the scenes helping all reporters and keeping tabs on her boss instead of the reverse, it's unlikely Bolton could have lasted much longer. But we'll never know, will we?

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