Quitting now likely an advantage for Gov. Sanford's spokesman

Friday, July 17, 2009 1:53 PM
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 2:30 PM
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COLUMBIA -- When it comes to public relations, Joel Sawyer has "street cred."

“He has been in the trenches,” said Deidre Martin, vice chancellor of University of South Carolina Aiken, adding that Gov. Mark Sanford’s departing communications director will probably command respect in the public sector.

“You’ve been there for good announcements as well as crisis communication announcements,” said Ms. Martin, who teaches courses in public relations, crisis communication and marketing.

“That’s something you can’t necessarily learn from a textbook. You have to have experience to know how to deal with it, and it gives you a great chance at the next job.”

Mr. Sawyer announced today he was leaving the governor’s staff “to pursue other opportunities in the private sector ... .”

His announcement came weeks after the governor disappeared over Father's Day weekend and then confessed to being in Argentina with his mistress. Since then Mr. Sawyer has fielded a barrage of media inquiries about Mr. Sanford’s behavior, even after the governor admitted he deceived his staff by telling them he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In a statement this afternoon, Mr. Sawyer sought to quell the inevitable rumors about his own resignation.

“The public nature of my job might lead some to speculate about my reasons for leaving,” he said. “But I want to be crystal clear that my departure is purely about what's best for me and my family on a personal and financial level.”

Ms. Martin said the public spokesman job Mr. Sawyer performed brings particular stress and demands a 24/7 commitment during the most ordinary circumstances. But even before the governor’s extramarital affair exploded, times were far from ordinary in the governor’s office.

For months, Mr. Sawyer had been handling Mr. Sanford’s high-profile rejection of $700 million in federal stimulus money, including a lawsuit filed by a South Carolina high school student. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Sanford June 4.

Steven Millies, assistant professor of political science at USC Aiken, also warned against assuming Mr. Sawyer jumped ship solely because of his boss scandal.

“Very often we see government officials parlay their public service into more lucrative private-sector jobs,” said Mr. Millies. “In presidential administrations as well as in governors' offices, this especially begins to happen as we draw nearer to the end.”

Mr. Sanford has 18 months left in his term, and Mr. Sawyer’s last day will be Aug. 5.

“A visible, currently serving official can probably command a better salary when he moves to the private sector than a former-official,” said Mr. Millies.

Sarita Chourey can be reached at sarita.chourey@morris.com or (803) 727-4257.


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