Chris Porrino had served as Gov. Chris Christie’s chief counsel. But when he was selected to serve as attorney general, he knew it was a different situation.
So, when he was told the governor wanted to chat before he started, Porrino said he was eager for the conversation.
What they talked about it surprised him. But it also proved to be prescient.
“When the governor asked me if I would take on the role and I agreed, he said, ‘Let’s pick an hour and have a conversation before you start,’ ” Porrino said. “I said, ‘I’d like to have as much time as you can give me.’
“With Christie having been the U.S. attorney and having real experience and success as a prosecutor, I was very much interested in his insights and advice.
“When we sat down for that conversation, he gave me advice about the media.”
That’s right: The media.
And it wasn’t what some might expect.
Christie had a contentious relationship with the media at the time. But everyone, media included, would agree he was a master at manipulating the medium.
“He said, ‘Most of what comes out of the Attorney General’s office is not real top headline grabbing stuff; most of it is the nuts and bolts, and not national news,’ ” Porrino said.
Christie told him to take advantage when it is.
“Utilize the media to help promote people who do work in the office, give them opportunities to try and be out front where they might not otherwise be,” Porrino said he was told. “Give them credit for things when you can in a public way and utilize the media in that fashion.”
Even more, Porrino said Christie told him to use the media to get the word out about what you’re doing — and have them help you do it.
Porrino learned to do just that. Staring with the administration’s focus on opioid addiction.
After announcing they were severely limiting the number of days opioids can be prescribed, there was a backlash from doctors.
“We took the number of days you could prescribe opioids from 30 to five and became the strictest in the country,” Porrino said. “And the doctors, not all, but some and a vocal group, went nuts: ‘The lawyers are now telling us how to to handle pain management.’ Plus, ‘We get judged as doctors on how well we are reducing the pain. You’re not going to tell me how to do my job and affect my reputation.’
“It became a fairly hot conversation. I was media savvy enough by then to say, ‘Excellent, this is what we need, some friction.’ Because that’s the only way we’re going to get focus on this.
“The conversation became mainstream media. Gov. Christie came out in his 2017 State of the State and only talked about the opioid crisis for the most part. And I think it was then that the conversation in New Jersey went from one that was happening in little pockets to one that was happening across the board.”
Porrino used the media to continue the fight.
“In addition to the law enforcement purpose, the public awareness piece of this is so important — that people understand how addictive this stuff is,” he said. “We would try hard to publicize the events that we thought were interesting to the public. So, whereas if we arrested a physician who was running a pill mill in Belleville, the year before it would have been a press release. Now, it’s, ‘Let’s do a press conference.’
“It’s important to get the word out and to talk about how this is happening, how this one doctor is distributing hundreds of thousands of pills across the state, how he’s got a distribution ring allegedly running down to Atlantic County.
“And a lot of times we would couple it. We would announce that arrest and then we announce a new portal where people could go on our web site and report pharmacists who they were suspicious of. If I announce the portal for pharmacists, it’s unlikely that matters — you’re not going to have (The Star-Ledger’s Matt) Arco showing up to cover that. But if you combine it, you will. And it helped a lot. We got a lot of new information.”
Porrino said he also used the media when he fought against religious discrimination in Bergen County, when he alleged the Mahwah Township Council and the Township of Mahwah approved two unlawfully discriminatory ordinances to stave off a feared influx of Orthodox Jewish people from outside New Jersey.
“We were starting to see (this) in other communities; it was not just limited to that one,” he said. “And so, when we came out on that, we came out loud. Again, it was another spot where I made the decision to use the media.
“We needed to do so in a way that the other local communities that we believe might be headed in that direction also heard it, so that we could tamp that sort of alleged behavior across the state.”
Porrino said he not only respected the media, but he tried to make his office becomes its own source of news through social media. Not doing so, he said, would be a missed opportunity.
“If you don’t take advantage in the law enforcement context of that opportunity, you’re not utilizing the full power of that office,” he said. “If you file a complaint and don’t tell anybody, it’s not nearly as effective at sending the message to everybody in that community.
“That’s part of the reason why, for the first time in the history of the AG’s office, we went to social media once we figured it out it was an important way to get the word out. It’s a very busy office with people accomplishing things every day, the vast majority of which are not article-worthy. But it’s tweet-worthy and it’s really important to get that out.
“It allowed us to demonstrate to legislators and the public that we were out there really trying our best to do as good a job as we could. And it gave people a sense of what we were doing. And if you disagreed with it, you can let us know.”