Frank Maisano Earns His Media

Rob Kunzig photo
Frank Maisano answers your calls. If you’re an energy reporter on deadline, and you need to talk about methane emissions with an expert, he’ll hook you up. It doesn’t matter if he’s at the beach, at a lacrosse game, or even if he’s bathing his daughter. Maisano picks up when reporters call.

“They know they’re going to get good information, and quick information. They know that I’m on a side. I’m pretty clear about that,” said Maisano, a staunch conservative who lobbies for some of the energy industry’s biggest names –though he harbors some affection for renewable energy.

“Sometimes they just can’t figure out the side,” he said.

Maisano is the rare conservative who listens to Rage Against the Machine. (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is another). He wears his dark hair long, and his button-down without a tie. Think Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club, but with a MBA from Johns Hopkins University. When we spoke, there was a Band-Aid patched over his left eyebrow.

“Here’s the made-up reason,” he said. “Say I got sliced with a hockey stick while reffing a game.” (We never got around to the real reason.)

His desk at Bracewell & Giuliani’s K Street offices feels more like a man cave. A pair of hockey skates sits under a chair. A signed poster of the rock group KISS hangs on the wall. Various knick-knacks adorn the shelves – a miniature wind turbine, a model Dodge Phantom, a Red Wings Zamboni from his native Detroit.

The punk-funk of Incubus crunches from his computer speakers. He loves them, he said. Goes to the concerts, knows the set lists. He’s not a big fan of “Megalomaniac,” the band’s 2003 anti-Bush rocker. “I don’t really think he’s a megalomaniac, to be honest with you,” he says.

…there really is a market for responding quickly, providing solid, detailed info and trying to level the playing field in stories that, for years, were not level because of our inaction. – Maisano

Maisano isn’t your average flack. In D.C., where public relations experts stitch together painstaking statements only to deliver them “on background,” Maisano has a reputation for being open, freewheeling, and fun. His weekly energy update emails kick off with light anecdotes about his weekend. “My daughter Hannah and I did manage to slip out to Merriweather Post yesterday evening to catch the last few acts of the DC101 Kerfuffle,” one says.

Or he rants about college football. “Why can’t we just let all the winners keep playing?”

It’s a strategic quirk. “The industry standard of the past has been very cautious, very measured, very bureaucratic: ‘The environmental press is out to get us, so we’re not going to respond to them.’ Stuff like that,” he said. “We’ve changed the dynamic, because there really is a market for responding quickly, providing solid, detailed info and trying to level the playing field in stories that, for years, were not level because of our inaction.”

When Maisano says “we,” he’s talking about Bracewell’s Policy Resolution Group, a lobbying shop that fuses policy wonkery with PR savvy. Rather than serving up warmed-over talking points, Maisano says he “scratches the surface” with a reporter. “Then I pass it off” to a relevant expert. He doesn’t deflect. He connects.

“We realized there was this nexus between policy and communications and lobbying, and we all pushed in this direction to more effectively serve our clients,” he said.

“I tell them, ‘These reporters, they’re going to write about global warming,’” Maisano says. “You gotta talk to them.”

Among its clients, PRG counts Southern Co., Chesapeake Energy and Arch Coal – energy mammoths with billions at stake. In 2010, Bracewell’s crisis communicators, Maisano among them, scrambled to help the oil industry contain the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon Spill.

But aside from these moments – an oil spill, or a President’s visit to the Arctic Circle – Maisano said not many Americans care about energy policy: “It matters if gas prices go up. If they don’t, they don’t care about it, really. I’m very skeptical of energy policy, because the issue is so focused on what people are looking at the moment.”

This leads the administration to raise tentpoles like the Clean Power Plan, Maisano believes, rather than adopt a more measured approach. He scoffs at Obama’s visit to the arctic, where he addressed climate change and spoke about his climate strategy. “This Alaska trip is so emblematic,” he said. “This president doesn’t really care about the details, because he’s selling the plan. And that undermines our ability to do a good energy policy.” He leans back in his chair and talks about energy policy casually, as if he’s waiting for a bus.

Despite claiming he can only “scratch the surface,” Maisano talks energy and environmental policy fluently, whether the topic is coal ash, clean water or furnace regulations. How’d he get into it?

“Low-flush toilets,” he said. “Smuggled in from Canada.”

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act – which, among other things, mandated that all toilets in the U.S. would dump only 1.6 gallons (as opposed to 3.5) per flush. In opposition, Michigan Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R) authored H.R. 623, which would have eliminated the low-flush rule.

As Knollenburg pushed for his bill, his press secretary, Maisano, caught wind of something interesting happening at the Canadian border crossings: toilet-smuggling. Tired of flushing twice, some Americans were buying 3.5-gallon flushers in Canada and bringing them back.

Knowing he had a live one, Maisano passed the story to humorist Dave Barry, and the resulting column generated a slew of “earned media,” or press attention. It wasn’t enough to save Knollenberg’s bill from a 13-12 defeat in the House’s Energy and Power Subcommittee. It taught Maisano a valuable lesson, though: Funny travels farther.

By this point, Maisano had flacked for Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Toby Roth, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin. (“A very tough boss,” Maisano said. “He always wanted to be in the press. He pushed me to be more aggressive.”) He had experimented with off-centered and provocative means of earning his media.

Maisano ran into politics – literally. A state-level distance runner, he was recruited by Hillsdale College in Michigan to compete in the Steeplechase, a 3,000-meter obstacle run. While at Hillsdale, a conservative institution – “Libertarian,” Maisano corrects. “More libertarian.” – Maisano fell in love with national politics. He ran Students For Bush to support the president’s 1988 bid, taking breaks to study, run and spin REM, The Smiths and Black Flag on the Hillsdale radio station.

When D.C. called, he landed in Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar’s office, where a whiteboard tracked staffers’ monthly running mileage.

After nearly a decade on the Hill, Maisano went to work for Chrysler – kind of a local-boy-making-good thing – Maisano landed at Bracewell & Giuliani, where he helped found PRG. Now, with the Obama administration pursuing an aggressive climate agenda, including the recently-finalized Waters of the United States rule and the legacy-defining Clean Power Plan, Maisano has his hands full.

“Let’s just say we’re extremely busy,” he said.

But even for a man who makes a living off being available, Maisano has a life outside the office. He referees hockey and basketball, one of the great pleasures of his life. “It’s my way of giving back to the sports that were good to me,” he said. He watches his daughter, a high school senior, play field hockey and lacrosse, dutifully tracking her athletic progress in his weekly energy bulletin. He makes time to stick his feet in the sand in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where he and his wife hope to move, eventually.

But Maisano’s the guy you call when you need to talk to someone – an expert on furnace regs, maybe. So he keeps his iPad in his beach bag, and his phone in his pocket.

“You aren’t always on, but you’re always ready to be on. There’s a difference.”

Morning Consult