PROFILE: Johnston defends SF's 'colorful' mayor to the hilt -P.J. Johnston is San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's biggest fan

But Brown's eccentricity constantly tests Johnston's ability to get the media to see Brown the same way he does. Julia Hood reports.

But Brown's eccentricity constantly tests Johnston's ability to get the media to see Brown the same way he does. Julia Hood reports.

P.J. Johnston, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's press secretary, has a PR job from hell.

He learned this after seeing a copy of PRWeek's survey on the subject in 2000. To his surprise, his was 10th on a list of "jobs from hell that included the PR people for such media lightning rods as Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton, and Pat Buchanan.

The reason for his inclusion is no mystery. Brown, who is routinely described in the media as "colorful, makes a habit of landing on the front page - often for the wrong reasons.

In March, Brown wisecracked to a French journalist who said that when he visited San Francisco, he was concerned for his safety. "I think you've got us confused with Miami, the mayor replied, a comment that did not endear him to that city's mayor.

There is little in Johnston's background that hinted he would be on the front lines of controversial city politics. He began his career as a general assignment reporter with Tracy Press in Tracy, CA, rising to features editor, and writing a weekly political column. At the same time, he freelanced for the San Jose Mercury News, penning movie and concert reviews.

In 1995, he experienced what he calls his "mid-'20s career crisis." After disappearing to Costa Rica for four months, he returned to California to volunteer on Brown's first campaign. Brown was elected mayor that year, and Johnston became his acting press secretary for about seven months, and was then deputized to Kandace Bender, a former political editor.

In 1998, Johnston made a tough job change to assistant to the GM of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, a.k.a. "Muni. He was on hand for the "Muni Meltdown, when a new computer system caused major service problems, and jeopardized Brown's reelection bid. "The mayor was humming along very successfully in many areas of the city, but we were just getting killed on Muni, Johnston says.

He left Muni in the spring of 1999 to become Brown's campaign press secretary.

After the preliminary election, Tom Ammiano, president of the city's board of supervisors, became Brown's surprise challenger when 25% of voters wrote him in.

With only six weeks until the run-off to campaign, the team decided on an aggressive plan of eight debates, two of which were to be televised.

"We decided he should have to face voters and the media, and not just be a personality, Johnston says. The strategy worked. "The debates revealed Tom to be a popular leader who was not prepared to take Willie Brown on head to head."

Brown won the election by almost 20%, and Johnston took a job as director of the city's film commission. But when the mayor shuffled his staff, Johnston returned as press secretary.

Since then, he has handled such issues as a disastrous board of supervisors election, when a change from a city-wide vote to a district-by-district poll meant many of Brown's allies were kicked out. The revelation in 2001 that Brown, who was then 66, had fathered a child with his 38-year-old chief fundraiser, caused another media circus. Johnston remembers having a "tough conversation with the mayor about the situation, but says Brown's frankness about the circumstances defused the crisis.

Although Johnston recognizes Brown's unpredictability, he is fiercely loyal to him. Moreover, he is vexed that others do not recognize Brown's depth. "I'm a fan of Willie Brown. My respect for him has only deepened over time, he says.

In rare moments of self-doubt, Johnston wonders if he's failed Brown by not convincing the media he's more than, at best, an eccentric character and, at worst, a corrupt politician. "The image projected by the media is, for the most part, so at odds with the person I know in terms of his own personal code of ethics, Johnston says.

Some in the media sympathize. "P.J. is very smart and devoted to his boss, and wants him to have a good image, says one San Francisco reporter.

"But Brown shoots from the lip."

For example, he says Brown will call spontaneous press conferences. "Many times, you show up and the mayor is winging it, and his staff is just dying. The first rule of a press conference is that you never let the media show up if you don't have a copy of a script or a press release or packet, the reporter says. "It lets the press go off on their own without the information to feed them. The reporters all go off on their own and get in trouble from (the mayor's) point of view."

Johnston accepts that his boss will improvise, but does not believe that it's detrimental. "First of all, Brown is not a person who has ever been willing to be scripted or 'handled,' so that's just an occupational reality for me, he says. "Secondly, I actually think the San Francisco press corps reacts really negatively to things that are overly canned. I think they resent being spoon-fed material."

Johnston heads a staff of three - one who specializes in working with the Chinese-language press, another who works with the Latino media. He is married to another Brown staffer.

Brown cannot run for reelection in 2003, and Johnston has yet to figure out his next step. But he thinks working for another politician, one he cares less about, might be difficult. "The reason the mayor has confidence in me is because he knows I genuinely love him and am loyal to him, he says. "And I believe in his values and his agenda as a leader."

P.J. JOHNSTON
1992-1994: Tracy Press, reporter; promoted to features editor
1992-1994: San Jose Mercury News, freelancer
1995-1996: Volunteer on Brown campaign
1996-1998: Mayor Brown's press secretary
1998-1999: Assistant to general manager of Muni
1999: Mayor Brown's campaign press sec
1999-2000: Director of SF Film Commission
2000-present: Mayor Brown's press secretary

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