McMahon’s press op: Rapid, aggressive and ‘no apologies’

On Sunday morning, a Washington political blog reported that Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon had called for cutting Social Security and Medicaid. By the afternoon, the reference disappeared from the blog.

In between, two things happened. Connecticut Democrats amplified the item by emailing it to reporters. And McMahon’s communication director, Ed Patru, left his fiancee’s bridal shower to get the reference to Social Security and Medicaid deleted.

Patru, ed, 10-11-10

Linda McMahon’s communications director Ed Patru, in grey sweater: ‘You can’t walk away from work’ (Mark Pazniokas)

“You can’t walk away from work,” Patru said. “News is reported in real time.”

The blog was wrong. In an interview aired Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week, McMahon was asked about cutting Social Security and Medicaid. She never said she wouldn’t, but she never said she would, either.

Patru declined to describe his call to the author of the item, which was posted on The Hill’s “Blog Briefing Room.” And in his daily email today to reporters, he blamed Democrats, not The Hill, for misrepresenting McMahon.

He is not always as reticent, especially when the transgressor is in Connecticut, not his base of Washington, where relationships with the media are to be nurtured, not burned.

Partru, 35, is a veteran of the Washington political media wars, whose efforts at messaging and spin have won him the ultimate insult/compliment, a comparison to Karl Rove by the widely read liberal blog, Daily Kos.

His relationship with Connecticut reporters has been strained at times as he has helped shape and protect the image of McMahon, a former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive seeking elective office for the first time.

On a day last month when McMahon rose in the polls, Patru tried to limit press access, inviting only broadcast reporters to a press conference as a way to keep the day’s story focused on the poll.

A previous press conference to celebrate another poll had gone off message, yielding stories about McMahon opposing extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, unless the wealthy also were included.

In trying to quash damaging stories or promote helpful ones in Connecticut, Patru is aggressive, praising or panning reporters by name in a daily email blast. In some cases, the praise goes to a story that he helped nurture.

In May, Patru raised eyebrows by claiming some credit for a New York Times story about Democrat Richard Blumenthal’s misstatements about serving in Vietnam. The McMahon campaign supplied The Times with video of one misstatement.

At the time, McMahon was competing for the Republican nomination with Rob Simmons, a former congressman and Vietnam veteran who was then favored to win the endorsement of the Republican State Convention. The McMahon campaign did not want Republicans crediting Simmons for a story that threatened to sink Blumenthal.

Patru has been with the McMahon campaign before there was a McMahon campaign. He was asked to consult with her before she declared her candidacy in September 2009 for the seat held by the five-term Democrat, Christopher J. Dodd.

In McMahon, Patru has a dream client, a political newcomer with the deep pockets to underwrite a state-of-the-art media operation. In Patru, McMahon has hired a Washington insider to hone her image as a political outsider.

Other than McMahon, Patru is the sole public face and voice of the McMahon campaign.

McMahon’s campaign manager is David Cappiello, who is press-savvy as a former state senator and congressional candidate. But Cappiello refers all press calls to Patru. The two of them answer directly to McMahon.

Patru started Amplifico, a public-affairs company, in 2008. It described itself as specializing in “aggressive public relations and rapid response” modeled after a “presidential campaign-style war room – a central information hub where news is pulled, analyzed, disseminated and responded to in real time.”

Its first major client was the Keelen Group, one of the leading Washington lobbying firms.

“We’re thrilled to have The Keelen Group as our first client,” Patru said in a press released in May 2009. “Matt Keelen is one of the most accomplished and respected insiders in Washington, and he represents clients with diverse public policy and regulatory challenges.”

Patru worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, then helped oversee communications for the U.S. House Republicans’s political operation, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

He never worked for George W. Bush – a point Patru tends to emphasize in conversation —  but he signed on with veterans of the Bush White House, including  former press secretary Ari Fleischer, to launch Freedom’s Watch, which billed itself as a conservative answer to the left’s grass-roots advocacy group, The effort floundered, never matching MoveOn’s ability to raise money and become an independent force.

“It didn’t exactly meet expectations,” Patru said.

In Connecticut, many of Patru’s media challenges have arisen from his candidate’s failure to be specific on issues, as in the This Week interview. What some might see as a failing is presented by Patru as a virtue.

“Here’s what I think needs to be understood. Linda’s not a career politician. She hasn’t spent her life in politics. She doesn’t wake up every morning talking in focus-group tested sound bites. She is deliberate in her answers.”

But her lack of specificity on another issue–the federal minimum wage–produced a major controversy 10 days ago, forcing the McMahon campaign to go on the defensive for 48 hours.

In accepting the endorsement of a business group that wants the minimum wage frozen, McMahon did not clearly answer a series of questions about whether she would support freezing, reducing or even eliminating the minimum wage. After the press conference, she did clarify that she did not support cutting or eliminating the minimum wage, but not all reporters stayed around.

The Day of New London quickly posted a blog item with the headline, “McMahon: Congress should consider lowering the minimum wage.”

The Democratic National Committee pounced, repeating the erroneous headline. The story was picked up in Washington, forcing McMahon’s staff to go into damage-control mode.

Unlike his low-key handling of The Hill’s error Sunday, Patru blistered The Day, the paper that had broken a story months earlier about McMahon directing a subordinate at the WWE to tip off a doctor about a federal steroid investigation. His email lashing of The Day went on for days.

“If there is a discrepancy or a disagreement between the facts and what’s been reported, that discussion needs to take place immediately,” Patru said. “We make no apologies for that, for paying attention to what is being written and when there is misinformation or inaccurate reporting, set the record straight immediately, before that inaccurate report can begin to snowball and become conventional wisdom.”