What’s the communications plan for the governor?



Gov. Michael Dunleavy needs a press secretary and a speechwriter. He also needs a crew of affable grammarians who can answer the mountain of unanswered constituent letters piling up in his office.

What Dunleavy needs, it seems, is a massive communications makeover. Without it, he’s left to his own devices in communications, and that would spell trouble. Trouble like what he ran into when a handful of protesters who stole the spotlight from him at Alaska Federation of Natives last week.

Dunleavy is capable as a communicator, partly because he was a teacher for many years, mostly in rural Alaska.

He’s a policy wonk who thinks through the tough issues with his small-government sensibilities, yet he needs to communicate that he understands that policy decisions have human consequences.

Contrary to what some critics say, Dunleavy has a vision; smaller government that is more efficient, less intrusive, and more responsive is certainly a vision. Allowing citizens to vote on taxes and the PFD is a vision. But Dunleavy hasn’t hit his stride in communicating his vision and he has faced a media that has sharpened its knives on every one of his missteps.

Dunleavy recently lost Matt Shuckerow, his press secretary, who left to become campaign manager for Sen. Dan Sullivan. Shuckerow was a capable hand and well-respected by the press corps, so far as their respect for press secretaries go.

Now Dunleavy’s communication director/strategist Mary Ann Pruitt has stepped back from her role running comms on contract with the governor’s office. Must Read Alaska has learned she is renegotiating the contract, as she gears up for what will be a monster year at her thriving company, PS Strategies, which has clients in several states. She never intended to stay past the Dunleavy transition phase, anyway.

Pruitt, through her company, is also likely to have a role in defending the administration against a recall, something that would have to be done outside the governor’s office. The Republican Governors Association is one of her company’s clients and RGA is paying attention. She’ll also be busy with political accounts to battle ballot measures that will come up in 2020.

So Dunleavy is going to need a new communication strategist to fill the void of these two talents. He needs someone who has superpowers to pull the message together and who understands the current media environment, the political environment, and Alaska.

But who? The list of people with that kind of “master communications strategist” talent in the state is short, and most of those people are already busy with other, better paying clients, or they can’t break away from existing projects to help the governor.

Dunleavy needs a person of the caliber of a Michael Dubke, the former communication director for the Trump White House, who also once had a key role in the election of Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Or a Matt Mackowiak, who did communication strategy during a critical juncture in the Parnell Administration.

Or a Mike Pauley, who was one of Dunleavy’s key strategic advisers on during the campaign and who has lived and worked in Alaska for years, (now in Seattle).

Or a Sarah Erkmann-Ward, owner of Blueprint Alaska, a communications firm in Anchorage, who has the respect of the media and the trust of the governor.

All are big-picture strategists, but this would be a more-than-full-time job. The person Dunleavy needs is going to have to stand up a 360-degree communication war room that is dedicated 24/7 during what will be a most-challenging year ahead.

That’s a special person.

Radio personality Dave Stieren, newly hired into the Governor’s Office as a community relations liaison is not that person — he’s not a speech writer, not a press secretary, and not the cordial guy with good bedside manners to manage a team of creative political professionals. He’s more of a street fighter and the governor needs to play to his super powers.

The right person for this role hasn’t materialized overnight, and that keeps the red flag flying, as this governor needs to get his message out more than ever: Dunleavy goes into the next budget cycle facing a $880 million deficit, a recall campaign, and a recalcitrant House and Senate Majority.

There’s more: According to Morning Consult, a polling firm that tracks the popularity of politicians, Dunleavy went from a 29 percent disapproval rating during the first quarter of the year to a 41 percent disapproval rating in the third quarter. He now ranks ninth from the bottom among the 50 governors.

To compare, last year at this time former Gov. Bill Walker had a 54 percent disapproval rating. In January of 2018, 52 percent of Alaskans disapproved of him, so he was a whole lot worse off than Dunleavy.

And in fairness, Dunleavy approval rating has ticked up slightly since the first quarter, and is now at 43 percent. That’s a couple of points advantage for him, and he could build on it if he could get his message out.

Getting that comm. team in place, it seems, would be a priority of the highest order, something he might want to act on sooner, rather later.


  1. Terrific observations.
    The Governor needs help in this area in obvious ways. Getting someone like Mike Dubke would be way smart, even if only for six months. Or bring in a genuine gunslinger like John Pudner would be good for the Governor and our State, even if he only stayed six months to clean up the unbelievable mess created by M. A. Pruitt.
    The only renegotiation that should take place with M.A. Pruitt is the partial refund to the public treasury for the ineffective work she’s fooled around with that’s harmed Governor Dunleavy and wasted public funds.

  2. I think more important than the messenger is the message being sent to Alaskans…
    I watched Governor Dunleavy’s interview on Fox News and Neil put it well at the end of the clip:
    “Well Governor, Alaska is a big state…
    There should be plenty of room for those on the left as well as the right.”

    • Yessir Steve, you’ve hit on the problem-it’s the message and not the messenger. Alaskans were sold a bill of goods and they’ve woke up to it IMO. It would take a real Rumplestilskin to pull Dunleavy’s fat out of this fire.

  3. Spot on, but I would add he needs someone who is definitively outside the control of the establishment. Either a closet “true believing” conservative, who is, nonetheless, well connected in the traditional establishment and media circles- or a true outsider who knows social media akin to Parscale on the Trump team.

    A huge mistake would be bringing in a “go along to get along” establishment hack who will be working to undermine the core message and either hobble the governor and his policy goals or speed his downfall completely…all while taking a princely sum to do so..

    Unfortunately, in this game, there are far too many of the latter, and far too few of the former…

    I wish him Godspeed.

  4. Although they have made some missteps, the Governor and his administration are doing good work:
    Donna Arduin did what she was supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that legislators didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
    Commissioner Chewbaka did what she was supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that the Inland Boatswain’s Union didn’t like what she had to say.
    Commissioner Brune has helped guide the DEC in the right direction and people have appreciated what he had to say. (Imagine that)
    Attorney General Clarkson did what he was supposed to do to comply with the Janus decision. It isn’t his fault that Vince Beltrami didn’t like what he had to say. (He also did what he was supposed to do on the Oil Tax Initiative. It is our responsibility to debate the merits of that initiative – not his.)
    I would appreciate more specific direction to his supporters, so I have a better idea of which battles he wants me to fight and where he wants me to engage, because the misinformation attacks coming from entrenched political factions is somewhat overwhelming. (On the plus side if you shoot back when you’re surrounded, you’re bound to hit something.)
    In the mean time, it appears that some of us are not engaging effectively with legislators who would be more supportive of the Governor if they were getting more encouragement from us, because they are getting plenty of pressure from the entrenched factions, and legislators represent those who engage with them.
    We don’t have to wait for them to ‘move the capitol’ and it doesn’t make sense to ‘primary’ them in the next election. (Even if we think that strategy would work – which I don’t.) If we are unhappy with what they are doing, we can at least politely let them know what we want them to do – or not do. We can send them an email. We can call their office. We can visit their office personally. (I seldom see another constituent in the Fairbanks LIO the several times I’ve been there since the session ended.)
    The front line is not at Must Read Alaska, and it certainly isn’t at Facebook. The front line is the legislature. And our best opportunity to engage on that front is between now and when they head by to Juneau in January.
    We didn’t elect a ‘King to fight our battles for us’ so we could sit back and watch. We elected a governor and legislators who need our help more than our criticism.
    Tell them what you want, encourage them when you agree, and ask them how you can help them achieve what you want when you disagree.

    • Mike Prax, a great comment! Suzanne frames the problem very well too. Personal involvement in making regular contact with legislators is the key here.

  5. Sounds like Downing is creating a job description – FOR HERSELF! Jeezus, your monkeyshines are precious!

    • Monkfelon – If I wanted a job with the Dunleavy administration, I would not have published this prescriptive report. But thanks for playing. – sd

  6. Dunleavy avoided speaking publicly as much as he could during the campaign. All he wanted people to hear from him was I will give you $6,700 of PFD money. He is roughly $5,100 short. So much for standing tall for Alaska!

  7. Capable communicator? Compared with who?
    It wasn’t long ago that people here scoffed at the idea of or need for a communication strategy.
    The wonderment of the effects of a recall campaign.

  8. Guess we didn’t get our money’s worth on the last communicator huh? Anything to show for it? Some left over notes, or file folders, plans, or contacts?

  9. Any idea when he’s going to unmuzzle his commissioners? Now that Arduin’s central plan appears to have been abandoned the agencies no longer need to speak exclusively through their OMB liaison.

  10. Alaskans who placed Mike Dunleavy in office had better realize quick what is happening to our governor. He is under political assault every day from the Left, exactly like President Trump. PFD money which belongs to qualified Alaskans is being held in an account which Walker could not spend. How is that for making sense, compute how this action is good for it’s rightful recipients. There are numerous programs along with wasteful spending which has to stop. The DC swamp migrated to Alaska before Mike Dunleavy was elected to drain it, & we certainly meant it!

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