- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - The majority Democrats in the Connecticut House of Representatives are hiring an outside media consulting firm to review the caucus’ communications operations and recommend how it can improve getting its message out to the public.

The planned evaluation by Hartford-based McDowell Jewett Communications will include a review of how the caucus is using social media and other new technology platforms, how often its message appears in the media, staffing and funding needs, media distribution and website integration, according to a copy of the firm’s June 12 written proposal to the House Democrats, provided Friday to The Associated Press.

McDowell Jewett Communications will also train staff in social media and “maximizing media interview opportunities,” according to the document.

The firm is requesting a $15,000 fee for services that begin immediately and run through Nov. 1. Gabe Rosenberg, the House Democrats’ communications director, confirmed the money will come from the caucus’ state-funded budget.

“Periodically it is helpful to evaluate our communications efforts,” said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, in a statement. He said the company’s two principals, Duby McDowell and Stephen Jewett, are people the caucus has worked with in the past.

The House Democrats currently have a media staff of 10 people, in addition to five digital staffers. All are state employees.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she has never heard of a legislative caucus in Connecticut hiring a private communications consultant. She said each caucus - House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans - already have a press office, outreach office, legislative assistants, research and legal staff.

“That’s what we all do in-house,” she said.

Klarides contends McDowell and Jewett are being hired because of the public criticism of the two-year, $40.3 billion Democratic state budget that increases taxes. The budget plan, which is expected to be changed during an upcoming special legislative session later this month, has prompted two major employers to threaten to move out of Connecticut.

“There’s been a firestorm, yet this comes as a shock that they need to do something about it,” Klarides said. “This is all damage control, plain and simple. As if it’s not bad enough, there are $2 billion in tax increases, they’re using state funds to try to spin it.”

Rosenberg denied the caucus was hiring the consulting firm because of the budget controversy.

“I think sometimes it is helpful to have an outside perspective,” he said, adding how McDowell, a former television reporter, has informally advised Sharkey and the caucus in the past.

McDowell said she has known Sharkey for more than a decade and confirmed she has consulted with him informally for much of that time.

“I’m happy that when the caucus decided to evaluate its communications efforts we got the call,” she said.

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