OHIO GOV. RICHARD F. CELESTE, 1987-1991
In 1987 Garry South was hired through a national search process to be the first-ever Communications Director for Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste. Celeste handily had won a second term the year before, but his poll numbers were among the lowest of any sitting governor, due to an abortive presidential exploratory run earlier in the year and several scandals and personnel problems still festering in his Administration. Despite all that, the charismatic Celeste was still widely viewed as a possible Democratic candidate for president in 1992.
Quickly dubbed the Governor’s new “PR czar” by the Dayton Daily News, South immediately set to work constructing from scratch what Governing magazine ultimately called “one of the most extensive communications operations of any governor” (or, “well-oiled spin machine” to The Toledo Blade), bringing under one roof the Press Office, Scheduling, Telecommunications, Speechwriting and Special Projects.
He conceived and initiated several unique, proactive ventures to assist in rebuilding the Governor’s image and better project his priorities and policies to the voters of Ohio. Included were two statewide radio call-in shows, unusually moderated by the Governor himself, “Airing Education” and “Dialogue with Governor Celeste”; Phil Donahue-style cable talk shows hosted by the Governor dealing with important issues of the day; satellite radio news conferences; public town forums all across the state; and the first use of teleconferences by an Ohio governor to tie together policymakers and ordinary citizens.
South and his staff also took complete control of the Governor’s previously haphazard schedule, and began strategically prioritizing how he spent his time. Key regions of the state were aggressively targeted with policy-specific events showcasing Administration priorities and success stories, including education reform, transportation and eldercare. In 1990, South accepted a Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America for the state’s innovative teen-pregnancy prevention program, put together by the Governor’s Communications Office.
South also oversaw Ohio’s travel-and-tourism and national and international business-marketing programs, ensuring that the public was kept informed of the benefits to the state and its economy from the aggressive promotional efforts on Ohio’s behalf across the nation and world. In this capacity, he helped plan and accompanied the Governor on several overseas trade missions, including to the Far East, the Soviet Union and Canada.
When Celeste was term-limited out of office in 1991, his job-approval ratings, remarkably, were higher than those of Ohio U.S. Sen. John Glenn, a national hero as the first American to orbit the Earth. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Most of the credit for Celeste’s turnabout has gone to Garry South.”