The Ad Man Cometh: One Mayor's "Great Value" Is Another Council Member's Waste of $30,000

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The Degolyer Estate at the Dallas Arboretum is a beautiful spot, a big house set back from a broad lawn, edged this time of the year with pumpkins and purple flowers. In the library, retreating Dallas City Council members and various other City Hall types (City Manager Mary Suhm, the mayor's chief of staff Paula Blackmon, among others) sat Thursday afternoon at round tables munching chocolate-chip cookies. I wedged myself onto a floral couch; the City Hall guys from The Dallas Morning News sat crammed around a dainty tea table in the corner.

As Robert noted yesterday, this was day one of the city council's annual retreat, and Thursday's program included presentations from two public relations pros, Molly Foley from Next Generation Consulting, and, more controversially, Frank Luntz, whose company, Luntz Global, refers to itself as "emerging powerhouse in the profession of message creation and image management." As you probably recall from yesterday, some of the man's biggest achievements include telling George W. Bush to refer to "global warming" as "climate change" and apparently convincing the entire Republican Party to use the phrase "death tax" instead of "estate tax." Luntz and Foley had promised to deliver survey results to let the city council know how we, the people, feel about them, their governance and the city we live in.

Foley's presentation focused on how to attract "Millennial" workers to the city, those elusive 29-and-under types. According to Foley's highly scientific research, which seemed to consist of broad conclusions she said were backed up by 2001 Census data (when most "Millenials" were teenagers and probably still living at home), we Millenials enjoy Facebook, Twitter, coffee bars that are open late, dog parks and not working very much. It was like Stuff White People Like done up in PowerPoint.

Foley urged the crowd to "create a culture in Dallas that's positive, vibrant and fun." She produced a survey by her firm that ranked our city as No. 26 out of 34 American cities with populations over 500,000, based on such criteria as walkability, green space, WiFi hot spots and "after-hours opportunities," which is not, disappointingly, what it sounds like.

But the main attraction was Luntz, whose presentation was controversial before he even got to the front of the room.

Angela Hunt had already told The News she was "very concerned" about Luntz, based on his political background as a GOP pollster and FOX News contributor, and questioned his price tag (which was, if you recall, $15,000 from the city and $15,000 from an anonymous donor).

Luntz immediately addressed his past work, kind of.

"My reputation is someone who comes from the right of center," he told city officials, but added that the state and local governments that he's worked with have skewed Democrat.

Luntz said that the Dallas research was "the smallest project that caused me the greatest amount of anxiety," and promised to tell the council members what people say about them "when you're not in the room." He tried to win over them right away by telling them how misunderstood they, and other politicians, are. "Nobody appreciates the effort, stresses and strains" of the job, he said. But the good news, he added, is that local politicians "are the most trusted level of government. That said, it still ain't great. People here want you to stop with the politics -- they're looking for real."

Dallas, Luntz said, "is more focused on the future and more optimistic" than any city he can recall polling. He called the overall picture of Dallas he got from polling around 400 of its residents (with a 4.7 percent margin of error) "good, but mixed."

Some numbers: Luntz said that around 44 percent of Americans think the best days in our history are still ahead of us. In Dallas, that number jumps to 63 percent. "You don't have pessimists here," he said. Sixty-four percent of Dallasites think they're better off than their parents, versus 60 percent nationally, and 57 percent think their kids' lives are better, versus 34 percent nationally. Seventy-seven percent want the city council members to represent all citizens equally, versus, say, representing the neighborhoods and communities where they live (whoops). People in Dallas feel slightly less safe walking around at night than most of the country does. Sixty percent of Dallasites say they want a "career," versus 21 percent who say they want a "job."

Council member Vonciel Jones Hill asked at that point if that meant Barack Obama's jobs bill would have had better success if it had been called a "career" bill.

"I said I would not do anything in politics," Luntz said, glancing at the mayor. "But I never duck a question."

"Next slide," said Mayor Mike Rawlings said, a little tersely. Luntz started to say something else. "Next slide," Rawlings repeated.

Luntz looked at him. "Wow," he said.

Rawlings also hurried Luntz through the last part of his presentation, which we thought was the most interesting (and has the most to do with why he's so controversial): offering the city council members "good" words versus "great" words. Don't say "sustainability," but use terms such as "cleaner, safer and healthier." Instead of saying "working together," say "partnership." In place of "sacrifice," use, "We're all in this together." Don't "inform" the public, "educate" the public. (So if you notice a sudden shift in city council's vocabulary, that would be why.)

But Luntz also wasn't above teasing his audience a bit, which sometimes went over well and sometimes really didn't. When Dwaine Caraway asked him to repeat himself at one point, Luntz gestured at the bold paisley number your former mayor had on and said, "Of course he can't hear me over that shirt he's wearing." That got some scandalized giggles. He asked a few city council members if they could name some ways they provide their citizens with "fewer hassles," which, not being Maytag repairmen, they had trouble answering. Mary Suhm jumped in after a moment, saying that the council makes, "a safer city, for God's sake."

"She reminds me of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction," Luntz said, gesturing towards the city manager with his chin.

Near the end of the afternoon, Vonciel Hill asked Luntz about something he'd mentioned earlier -- that white people are, statistically, "less optimistic" about the future than African-Americans or Latinos.

"You really want me to go down that direction?" Luntz asked. He told her that white people have "concerns with the president," specifically the direction he's taking the country, that directly contribute to their lack of optimism.

"I absolutely disagree," Angela Hunt said promptly.

"Let me finish first," Luntz said, a little testily. "Ladies and gentlemen, Rick Perry." Hunt started to say something in her defense, and Luntz replied, "You interrupted me."

"Stop," Rawlings said quickly. Luntz went on to say white people are also particularly afraid of "their jobs going to China." (Update 10:10 - In an email just now, Hunt adds, "While it may be true that many whites disagree with the President's positions, that doesn't adequately explain the difference in optimism among races. I think the reduced optimism many whites have about the future has less to do with President Obama's policies or what he has done and more to do with the fact that as the first black president, he's emblematic of significant racial demographic shifts in our country and the fact that whites are losing their historic hold on power.")

After Luntz concluded, Hunt did not look happy. We went over to chat.

"I think we just wasted $30,000 on a banal presentation that could have been provided as a handout," she told us. "I'm not interested in how we develop better messages to better manipulate the public's perception, or learning buzzwords to prompt the most visceral reaction." She added that she thought the poll questions were often leading. 

Scott Griggs agreed. "It was just too poll-driven," he said. "We need to focus on getting to work, finding solutions and getting results. This is spin." They both also questioned whether a 400-person online survey with a nearly 5 percent margin of error was truly useful (Gallup polls, for context, generally have a two or three percent margin.)

But out on the patio, Rawlings said he was satisfied with the presentation. "I've always believed certain things about Dallas," he told Unfair Park, and he appreciated seeing hard numbers to substantiate them. "It was a very extensive piece of research for a great value," he said.

He declined to say who had donated the other portion of Luntz's fee. Why did the donor want to remain anonymous, we asked? "Some people who give to the city just like to say, 'Don't give me any credit, I just want the city to be better,'" Rawlings said.

"So for $15,000 do we get a copy of this survey?" Scott Griggs asked a little earlier, as the afternoon wore on. No. At least not yet. The council members will get the whole thing at some point soon, and we're supposed to get a copy too. We'll make sure to put up the full presentation for your leisurely perusal once we've got it.

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