Maybe it’s just bad timing.
It’s almost too easy to pin the sudden shift in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s communications strategy on Eileen Park, the former KOIN reporter recently hired to lead Wheeler’s communications department.
Perhaps Wheeler was just waiting for a new communications director to help him unleash a new social media strategy—one that’s both reactionary and petty.
Two weeks after Park’s hire, we saw the first red flag. It came from Wheeler’s Twitter on Election Day:
“Here’s what you need to know about the demonstrations tonight. We know of at least 6 groups coming to downtown Portland. [Police] reached out to them to have a conversation. They have not yet responded. None of the groups have applied for a permit.”
This vague, foreboding message raised an alarm for Wheeler’s followers—including Patriot Prayer, the alt-right group based in Vancouver, Washington.
By now, it’s well known that Patriot Prayer keeps a close eye on Wheeler’s social media accounts, hungry for any opportunity to mock their city’s liberal neighbor. Some Patriot Prayer protests have even been scheduled in direct response to Wheeler’s actions—like when Wheeler tweeted his support of Portland police officers for how they handled an October protest. Patriot Prayer disagreed, and five days later, brought a “flash mob” to Pioneer Courthouse Square, calling for Wheeler’s resignation and inciting violent brawls.
Wheeler’s Election Day tweet was also met with an alt-right response. Three hours after the tweet was posted, Patriot Prayer shared the message on Facebook. Commenters suggested dropping by the demonstration to “trigger liberals,” but the idea was quashed by group leaders.
The eventual demonstration, a small gathering of progressive groups protesting an anti-immigration ballot measure, began and ended peacefully.
I asked Park, who manages Wheeler’s social presence, if she considered that the tweet would provoke members of Patriot Prayer.
She hadn’t. “This has nothing to do about certain groups of people,” Park said.
I know, I know—it’s just a tweet. But at a time when politicians use social media as their main messaging platform, Wheeler’s seemingly trivial posts can’t be brushed aside.
Over the past month, Wheeler has used Twitter to “call out” and insult the credentials of civil rights leaders who disagree with him and to patronize others who oppose his Constitutionally dubious anti-protest policies... and to retweet anyone who says nice things about him.
According to Park, it’s all part of an effort to improve transparency.
And in some cases, that’s happening. After years of resistance, Park managed to convince the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to allow journalists inside the bureau’s “command center” during a large protest.
Thus, on November 14, Park invited two journalists—one from the Oregonian, one from the Portland Tribune—to report from the command center during an upcoming Patriot Prayer rally. But the offer came with a strict stipulation: If the specific reporter who was invited couldn’t attend, neither publication could send another reporter in their place. Park told me she had selected those two reporters for their record of “fair and balanced” reporting.
In other words, the mayor’s office was attempting to choose which voices they wanted covering police conduct. Neither reporter accepted Park’s invitation.
“In hindsight,” Park says, “I can see how this does not look good.”