Opinion: Gianforte and his PR team must do better

Two guys

Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Rep. Greg Gianforte, left, and Sen. Steve Daines, both Montana Republicans, discuss ways to improve forest health and reduce summer wildfires.

After 18 years as a journalist working across Montana and Wyoming, there aren’t too many times where I can say that something happened for the first time. Sometimes it feels like I’ve seen or heard it all before.

But a new first came on Tuesday, when I got word that U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., was in Missoula. A trusted reader said she had spotted him at lunch at Finn and Porter, a local restaurant, right around noon.

Martin Kidston

Martin Kidston

This came as a surprise since there was no notice from Gianforte’s communications team that he would be in Missoula on business. His Facebook page had placed him in Bozeman and Helena on prior days, but even this made no mention of Missoula.

Things took an odd turn when, after hearing Gianforte was here in town, I did what reporters do and called his office in Washington, D.C., looking to speak with his communications director, Travis Hall, to find out where I could catch up with our state’s congressman.

The woman staffing Gianforte’s office in our nation’s capital politely said she would give me Hall’s email address if I needed to reach him. When I asked for his contact number, however, I was told that Hall didn’t “have one immediately available.”

A number or a phone?

I was a little confused, wondering why the person who heads communications for a sitting member of Congress wouldn’t have a government cellphone. Of course, Hall does have a government cellphone; the office just wasn’t willing to give it out.

In contrast, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., lists the contact numbers for his three media personnel on every press release he sends out. His media personnel also do something that’s increasingly rare these days – they actually contact the media when Tester is in town.

Curious, I checked Gianforte’s own press releases and found that none of them have included a contact number for media inquiries, much less a name. This is hardly an oversight on Gianforte’s part but rather, it suggests an attempt to shut the public out and limit its ability to interact with Montana’s only member of the U.S. House.

And just so you know, Gianforte claims three congressional offices in the state, with all three sitting east of the Continental Divide. Two of those offices are just 90 minutes apart. Why our congressman has no representation in Western Montana is a question better saved for a different day.

With Gianforte’s staffers unable or unwilling to find or release Hall’s public number to the media, I resorted to writing Hall an email requesting his number, along with Gianforte’s location in Missoula, at 3:31 p.m. on Tuesday.

It’s now going on noon on Wednesday and Hall has yet to reply.

I find it disappointing that Hall has disregarded the basic duties of his public job, and that Gianforte hasn’t taken the most basic steps toward transparency by sharing the numbers of his media staffers and letting all news outlets know when he’s in town.

It drives toward accountability, access to our elected officials and our right to know what they’re doing when it’s related to the duties of their office. Really, it comes down to your right to know.

UPDATE

Hall reached out at 2:05 p.m. on Wednesday. Here is his reply:

“Good afternoon, Martin. Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Your Gmail address and lack of a subject line were likely the culprits that pushed your email into my junk folder, which is particularly sensitive with the House email system.

“Congressman Gianforte was in Missoula yesterday as part of his Forest Jobs Tour. There, he met with a trucking company impacted by the current forest management system. He also sat down with the ABC/FOX Montana affiliate in Missoula for an exclusive interview.

“The best ways to reach me are our office number (202.225.3211) and my email (Travis.Hall@mail.house.gov). Both my number and email are included in all releases we send. I regret I was not in the office to take your call yesterday, as my infant son was sick. That said, I would have responded to your email more quickly had it not been filtered to a junk folder.

“Finally, I regret this is our introduction and first interaction. Feel free to reach out anytime, and I will endeavor to be helpful.”

This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.

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