(Cross-posted from my work blog, The PR Finish Line)
As he boards the next shuttle to Washington, interim Senator Paul Kirk has several, distinct communications challenges. How he handles these challenges might well determine if – to steal a tortured Kennedy sailing metaphor – his four-month ride in the Senate is tranquil or gusty.
First and foremost, he needs to do more of what he did today: Be solid and stay in the shadow.
In today’s press conference, Kirk exuded confidence and humility, which are good. But more importantly, Kirk indicated that he won’t be using this seat as a launching pad to anything. He is there to do a job and he intends to do it.
The people of Massachusetts like to elect their showboats. Kirk seems to know this. As they go about the business of electing a new senator on January 19, it is Kirk’s job to mind the store, keep the lights on and do little else. As Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry said, this is a “caretaker appointment.”
Still, projecting that kind of quiet determination in this media landscape will be difficult.
The press — just doing their job — will be nipping at his heels, wanting large pronouncements and big speeches to fill the air. They will want him to take sides in the battle for Kennedy’s permanent replacement; they will want to find areas where he disagrees with Kennedy’s stance on positions – or Kerry’s, or Democratic Senate leadership. Kirk cannot bite.
For interim Senator Kirk, the simple communications goal should be to relish life in his mentor’s long shadow. That means no big speeches on the floor, no press releases – at all – no lengthy sit-down interviews (after today, that is). He needs to show the public he’s serious but not over-reaching.
Next, he needs a strong focus within the Senate. That’s easy because the headlines are pushing him into a natural sweet spot, health care reform. Reforming the nation’s health care system was Senator Kennedy’s lifelong work. Kirk can finish the job Kennedy worked at for a decades. His physical presence will be a daily reminder of what the Liberal Lion would have wanted them to do.
At the same time, Kirk could do a world of good in his four months by making sure Kennedy’s office continues to do well at what it has always done best – serve the people of Massachusetts. Kirk should ensure that some of Kennedy’s quality staffers, who have been working to shut down the office since the Senator’s death, now move to help him by manning the phones and getting things done.
Citizens are used to calling that office when they have problems – whether it’s a late Social Security check, a question on Medicare reimbursements, Head Start or they just want a tour of the White House. Kirk needs to show the Kennedy torch has been passed on more than health care. Constituent service is the best way to do that for the next four months.
Kirk said there are 800 open cases to work on in the office. He should indeed go about getting those done, but do so quietly and, if there is credit to be taken, let Senator Kerry take it.
Kirk also has a lengthy not-to-do list coming into this seat. Atop that list should be to not go too far afield on matters of foreign policy.
If issues are raised and questions asked, Kirk’s job will be to wrap himself in Senator Kerry. Kerry is a respected voice on foreign policymatters and the people of Massachusetts – while more likely to call Kennedy than Kerry on constituent work – realize he has very solid foreign policy credentials. If votes come on continuing war funding for Afghanistan, as they might if Congress can pass meaningful health reform before the end of the year, Kirk must tread carefully. The best way to do that is to follow Kerry.