Keeping Arkansas informed,
one media outlet at a time
by Dwain Hebda
If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to mistake J.R. Davis for an eager young intern in Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office. The governor’s communications director is barely into his 30s and looks younger than that.
But a few sentences into a conversation with the Alabama native (his parents relocated to Harrison when Davis was in high school) and you know this is no novice to the scrum of politics meets press. Even if, as he says, the claws rarely need come out.
“I think we have an incredible media pool of reporters here in this state,” Davis says. “I think they’re fair. I think that they ask the right questions and I think that’s the way they should do it. I don’t have any complaints as far as specific media outlets.
“I think it’s about having those relationships with the press,” he continues. “It’s letting them know that you’re readily available when they need you. I think the most important part of what I do is just letting them know that I’m here if they need something.”
Davis comes by his knowledge of, and even some empathy for the press honestly. He graduated from Arkansas Tech University in 2008 with a degree in journalism and spent his early years as a television news reporter in Northwest Arkansas. Less than three years into that career, he joined U.S. Rep. Steve Womack’s staff as communications director and spent nearly two years learning the ins and outs of Washington politics.
Davis returned to cover politics for a rival northwest Arkansas TV station, where he made a sufficient impression to be considered for Hutchinson’s campaign staff.
“I remember the first time [Hutchinson] brought me into his office in Rogers, for a second interview,” Davis says. “I remember he asked a lot of questions. He was inquisitive, and he wanted to know a little bit about me.
“He was upfront with me. It was very refreshing,” he adds. “It wasn’t a lot of that telling people what you want to hear sort of thing. He was very honest and I really appreciated that.”
Davis said during the governor’s time in office, he continues to see these traits out of his boss, namely, consistency and authenticity. Such is not to say the state’s chief executive isn’t above hearing alternate opinions on a given issue.
“We start off every day with a senior staff meeting and we have great discussions,” he says. “He may throw out a topic and let’s discuss it. Should we do anything with it? Should we not? It’s a very healthy dialogue in our office and it obviously starts with him providing a good environment.
“And I’ll say this: The governor, when he hires someone, he hires that person and then he expects them to do their job. He’ll have thoughts and of course he’s involved in almost everything, but they’re sort of the subject matter experts and he trusts their opinion,” Davis adds.
Davis is adept at seamlessly working his boss’ wins into the flow of a conversation. Ask him about the challenges of framing a message, for instance, and he’ll artfully remind you it’s a lot easier when the state’s unemployment rate is down nearly two percent in as many years.
Even the subject of media bias doesn’t seem to register more than a cursory “It comes with the territory” shrug.
“It’s fine to push back,” he says. “I think there’s absolutely an appropriate time to do that in my job to say ‘Look, maybe you’re not understanding this. Maybe you have wrong information.’ Or ‘Hey you’re saying this, but that’s not accurate.’ That is part of my job, it’s a big part of my job.
“At the end of the day, they’re going to write what they’re going to write,” Davis continues. “Our record should stand on its own and I think it does. Really, sort of the strategy behind that is to have all your information ready to go and just be upfront and honest and answer their questions.”
Asked what he’d do were he in charge of President Trump’s communications department, specifically given the President’s penchant for sounding off through Twitter, Davis offers a half-smile.
“It’s not necessarily my style or the governor’s style but I think what the President has been able to accomplish in the first year has been incredible,” he says. “I think nationally, folks really should pay attention to the outcomes of the President versus his tweets because what he’s done as President, it’s been pretty substantial in one year.”
“Again,” he adds, “I think everybody has a different style, but I would encourage folks to look past that stuff and actually look at the outcomes and what’s happening. Same thing with our governor. I think he does an incredible job when he speaks and the way he handles himself. You have to be able to stand on your record; everything he promised in 2014, he accomplished in year one.”
“It’s about outcomes. It’s about what you said you were going to do versus what you’ve done,” Davis says. “I think the president has gone a long way in delivering on those promises and I think Asa Hutchinson has done the same.”