Brooks & Me: Seventeen Years as Oakland Co. Spokesman
Crisis communications to private pranks and innovative public policies
by Robert Dustman
January 16, 2010
Last October 2 I walked out of the Executive Office Building for the last time as Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s media and communications officer. Walking to my car, I glanced furtively over my shoulder at the fifth floor corner office that had been my home away from home for so long. A torrent of memories came flooding back to me as I drove home.
My mind flashed back to that fateful meeting in Brooks’ Auburn Hills law office in April 1991 when he told me he was going to run for Oakland County executive in 1992. Then he dropped a bombshell. “Bob, there’s a job that would be perfect for you: public information officer,” Brooks said. “Would you be interested in coming on board if I win the election?”
It took but a second to answer. “Yes.”
The transition from a 25-year career in broadcasting to government was a little daunting, but nonetheless exciting. It was an opportunity to leave my own mark on what had been a much neglected but important function of county government. The county’s first elected executive, Daniel T. Murphy, had run the county administration professionally but quietly.
On my “to do” list: produce a weekly countywide cable show called “Patterson and Company” featuring Brooks and members of the new administration; establishing a Communications Group comprised of other county PR specialists; create a special hotline for county news; script an “on-hold message” that would provide callers interesting tidbits of information about Oakland County while they waited for assistance, and reformat the Telegraph into a more employee-focused, 12-page, multi-colored newsletter.
At the top of the list, of course, was the tough task of trying to keep ahead of — or at least up with — the energetic and often controversial new county executive who was never tepid about speaking his mind or standing up for a principle, even if it didn’t toe the official party line.
The first memorable press event I organized occurred on May 17, 1993, when Brooks climbed into a curb sweeper at the Eight Mile on-ramp to northbound I-75. As my media advisory stated, the purpose of the excursion up and down the freeway was to “symbolize Brooks’ aesthetic commitment to Oakland County’s environment.” I also, in a fit of hyperbole, called it the “photo opportunity of the year.”
Brooks got behind the wheel and maneuvered the street sweeper for a few miles all over the freeway (and I do mean all over). As he came over a hill just north of Eight Mile, a phalanx of television lights and flashbulbs greeted him. Brooks climbed out of the cab all dirty and grimy, looking as though he had just spent the day in a coal mine. Brooks did his media interviews and the event made the 11 o’clock news.
As the county prosecutor from 1972–88 and now as county executive, Brooks called ’em the way he saw them, which meant he was often critical of City of Detroit politics. So it was no surprise when in 1993 Brooks got dragged into the 1994 Detroit mayoral contest. Sharon McPhail, one of the contenders, had been saying on the campaign trail that Brooks was supporting Dennis Archer for mayor. Brooks warned her to stop making such assertions because they simply were not true. She persisted. Finally Brooks had had enough.
I was sitting in Brooks’ office on a day when the umpteenth phone call came in from a reporter asking if, indeed, he was supporting Archer for mayor. An initial frown soon gave way to a familiar look — a boyish smile with a glint of mischief twinkling in his eyes. As the guy who often had to “explain” Brooks’ comments afterward, I both smiled and cringed when I saw that look.
“No, no,” I remember him saying. “Sharon has it all wrong. I’m supporting her candidacy for mayor of Detroit.”
Brooks went a step farther and hosted a fundraiser for Ms. McPhail at Duggan’s Irish Pub in Royal Oak. We offered her the proceeds but she declined, so the money went to charity.
In the fall of 1996, as I was preparing to leave early one Friday afternoon, the county’s Health Division manager walked into my office to announce an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Oakland County. Oddly, I was one of the last to know. I learned, to my utter amazement, that there were three television crews already sitting in our conference room waiting for comment.
I pulled together a hastily called press conference to brief the media on what we knew about the outbreak. The next day, environmental health inspectors were scheduled to check out the cooling towers of about 15 suspect buildings in the Farmington area where the legionella bacteria could breed. TV wanted video of the samples being taken.
My biggest concern was to make sure innocent businesses in the area were not unfairly implicated in the outbreak. I met the media at 10 a.m. Saturday in the back of the Ameritech building, one of the suspect sites. I gave them the green light to go up on the roof with the inspectors to get their pictures, as long as they promised not to identify the building from which the samples were taken.
Finally, on November 8, 1996, we announced the results of our investigation into the Legionnaire’s outbreak, which killed four people and sickened another 30, but not before the attorneys and the PR firm representing the offending business brought pressure to bear to keep us from releasing the report.
Other major crisis communication challenges that occurred on my watch were two separate Hepatitis A outbreaks in 1997 and 1999, the Anthrax scare in 2001 and the Blackout of 2003.
When I arrived at Oakland County the media were viewed with skepticism by some executive departments. That attitude had to change. I met personally with the most recalcitrant individuals to try to alter their view of the media. I also organized daylong media seminars in which directors were exposed to various scenarios they might encounter, to make them more comfortable with the whole media experience.
I pointed out the media can be valuable allies, especially in emergencies when their help is needed to keep the public informed. Helping rather than hindering them might also provide the benefit of the doubt on a tight call in a potentially damaging story.
One of the most effective PR tools we used in getting our message out was the occasional newspaper editorial board meeting. These visits, which included Brooks and key members of his administrative team, produced positive editorials most of the time. In fact, the Detroit Free Press was so impressed by one of our early presentations about all the things happening in Oakland County that it resulted in the paper expanding its suburban coverage. Another one-on-one meeting with a Free Press editorial writer produced a piece supporting our persistent claim that Oakland County was, indeed, a regional player and not an opponent of policies and projects involving Wayne and Macomb counties, especially the City of Detroit.
My approach to media relations was fairly straightforward and stemmed from my long career as a journalist: return phone calls immediately, be cooperative, respond to media requests for information in a timely manner and, whenever possible, make Brooks the primary source for media interviews. It was important to keep his name and face out there as much as possible, not just at election time. Besides, he was already the equivalent of a political rock star in this state and was never one to avoid the cameras.
The times I will remember with the most fondness though are not the big moments. Instead, they tend to be the more nuanced and personal ones, such as Brooks walking into my office when a less-than-flattering story about him appeared in the paper and him asking: “Bob, how long have you worked for the county…just don’t count today.”
Then there was the day his directors hid when a staff meeting was called on April Fool’s Day. Brooks walked in to find an empty conference room. He dispatched his secretary to see where everyone was, clueless that we were all hiding in the basement of the building. Then realizing that, for a change, he was the “prankee” and not the prankster, he called in a photographer to capture the moment for posterity. Then he went on to call the meeting to order in an empty room as we all sheepishly returned from our little ruse to face the music, hoping we still had jobs. I’m sure Brooks had something clever to say, but neither I nor anyone else can remember what it was. I do know he enjoyed our little act of mutiny, and everyone had a good laugh.
Or there was the time I took a week off to move from Farmington Hills to Auburn Hills. Brooks called as I was knee-deep in boxes and up to my elbows in packing tape to ask if I could get Tom Brokaw to fly in and sign his book The Greatest Generation at a political fundraiser showing of the movie Pearl Harbor at a local theater. I said: “I’ll see what I can do,” but was thinking something entirely different. Brokaw never made it.
One day as I walked into Brooks’ office to talk with him he was, as usual, busy going back and forth between reading some papers on his desk and checking his emails. Finally, in frustration, I asked: “Are you listening to me?” He looked up somewhat dismissively and assured me he was. I finished my say, walked out shaking my head and thought to myself, well that’s just Brooks.
Brooks. It’s customary for top-level politicians to be referred to in private, even by their closest aides, by their title: Mr. President, Governor, Senator. The fact that all of us on his executive team, and many other county employees as well, referred to him simply as “Brooks” says a lot about the man as a leader and individual. Brooks is, perhaps, the most approachable and accessible big-name political leader in the state. He eschews formality in favor of casual personal contact with those with whom he works.
Those are the moments that will remain indelibly etched in my mind forever. They were the marrow of my career at Oakland County.
My 17 years at Oakland County gave me a unique opportunity to work for one of Michigan’s great political leaders and alongside some of the most talented people in government, whose hard work and dedication have made Oakland County a leader in technology, budgeting, pandemic preparedness, job creation and economic development.
I had a front row seat to history — Automation Alley, Emerging Sectors, the Business Roundtable, Count Your Steps and Medical Main Street, to name but a few. What more could one ask of a career?
As I pulled into my driveway and got out of the car, it all started to sink in. I’m retired! Then I realized retirement is just another chapter in one’s life. A chance to grow, to learn, to explore new vistas and do all those things you always wanted to do, but never had the time for during your working life.
For me retirement means writing a personal memoir, maybe some media consulting and pursuing voice-overs opportunities. I’m truly excited about the road ahead. I can’t wait to see what lies around the next bend.
Robert Dustman spent 25 years in broadcasting, primarily in the Detroit area, before serving 17 years as Oakland County’s chief information officer. He can be reached at [email protected].