When Fred Piccolo steps into the Governor’s Office Monday on his first day as communications director, he’ll be taking the reins at a low point in the Governor’s public image.
After enjoying months as one of the nation’s most popular Governors, Ron DeSantis’ approval rating has plummeted from its high-water mark. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is claiming the lives of an increasingly higher number of Floridians each day, and blame is falling on the Governor for reopening too quickly and refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate.
Stepping into the Governor’s Office during the pandemic “is daunting, definitely a challenge,” Piccolo said in an interview on the eve of starting his new job. But he is armed with four years of experience taking an aggressive approach to communications for outgoing House Speaker José Oliva and former Speaker Richard Corcoran, spearheading the narrative through social media.
“The story that Florida can tell here is a relatively good one,” Piccolo said. “But there is no good news here. Any death is tragic.”
Piccolo will have a larger platform to practice his craft. DeSantis has more than half a million Twitter followers, while Oliva has 6,299.
For the Governor’s Office and executive agencies, a move toward social media means adapting written news releases into multimedia packages fit for the “30-second YouTube culture” that requires attention-grabbing content.
And Piccolo says DeSantis is open to resetting the relationship with reporters after months of “fisticuffs and hurt feelings on all sides.” But, he insists, the media has been unfairly critical of the Governor, falsely characterizing him as in lockstep with President Donald Trump.
“I’ve never seen the office be the puppet of the President,” Piccolo said.
Part of the new media approach would be making the Governor available for one-on-one interviews with the press.
Despite the busy week of personnel announcements while the Governor faces backlash over reopening schools and his refusal to issue a mask mandate, Chief of Staff Shane Strum insists everything is normal in the Governor’s Office.
Staff typically remain a year, no more than a year and a half, he added. And with the direct transition from Legislative Session to pandemic response, many who would have otherwise left the office in March stayed on over the last several months.
Rather than fearing unsteady leadership in a time of crisis management, Strum says Floridians should view the flurry of changes within the Governor’s Office as DeSantis’ ability to recruit top talent. And with Piccolo’s “creative talent” in social media and infographics, Strum called the hire “a new opportunity to get a better understanding of the comms shop.”
Piccolo is replacing Helen Aguirre Ferré, dispatched to the Republican Party of Florida as its new executive director. The Party has been captain-less since Peter O’Rourke returned to Washington, D.C., in mid-March, leaving Chair Joe Gruters to take on both leadership roles effectively.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Staff David Clark is departing at the end of the week in part to spend more time with his young family, and Deputy General Counsel Nick Primrose will exit for JaxPort after the primary election. And also Monday, Deputy Director of Communications Meredith Beatrice is taking on an “enhanced” role within the comms shop, now as the director of strategic initiatives.
Ferré will be the RPOF’s first woman and first Hispanic executive director. But her ties to the Governor and the White House, where she was director of media affairs until 2018, as well as past experience with the Party, made her a natural choice to fill leadership and communication responsibilities with less than 100 days until the general election.
As for Beatrice, Piccolo said the promotion would reflect the dedication she has put into the Governor’s media effort. She will continue to juggle communications for a host of agencies.
Before the Governor named him to succeed Ferré, Piccolo intended to stay in the House Speaker’s office to serve Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls, with whom he has been longtime friends.
Leaving the debate and hot tempers of the House floor would be “bittersweet,” Piccolo said. And he would miss friends there, including those across the aisle like Democratic Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani.
But when Strum began the search for a new communications director in early July, Strum reached out to Piccolo, and he quickly emerged as a top choice.
“He just checked all the right boxes,” Strum said.
With Ferré taking the reins of the state GOP, the Party is now on its third executive director in less than a year. Party officials pushed O’Rourke out after seven months on the job, and his predecessor, Jennifer Locetta, was similarly ousted in a leadership shake-up after a seven-month tenure.