Critic says Noem’s workforce ad campaign should be ‘as dead as Cricket’ after dog scandal

John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s fame has powered a national workforce recruitment campaign, but some think her newfound infamy might doom it.

However, the state office managing the campaign says it will not change course.

The future of Noem’s starring role in South Dakota’s $9 million Freedom Works Here ad campaign is triggering debate after she disclosed in a forthcoming book that she shot and killed her young dog named Cricket years ago. She wrote that the dog disrupted a hunting trip and displayed aggressive behavior, including killing chickens.

The incident has attracted a torrent of negative attention from both sides of the political spectrum, leading some to question the suitability of Noem’s role as the face of a state effort to attract new workers.

“This has blown up in her face,” said Mike Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota. “I think it ends the campaign as it is.”

Card said making the governor the face of the workforce recruitment campaign was a “dumb idea all along” that would only appeal to certain people.

The national campaign features Noem in a series of video advertisements, working in various high-demand jobs. It was launched to bolster the state’s workforce by showcasing the benefits of living and working in South Dakota, aimed at potential residents from other states.

The campaign was intended to capitalize on the nationwide name and image recognition Noem built during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she attracted praise and scorn for keeping the state largely open and for recruiting then-President Donald Trump to a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. Prior to last week, Trump had acknowledged he was considering Noem as a running mate in this year’s presidential election.

But the governor’s dog-killing disclosure, which she shared in her upcoming book, “No Going Back,” has affected her brand. Google Trends suggests the incident has resulted in more people Googling the governor than ever before.

Noem administration responds

Yet the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which manages the Freedom Works Here campaign, is holding firm.

“Governor Noem and her commitment to our state have propelled this campaign forward at an unprecedented level,” said office spokesperson Sarah Ebeling. “We currently have no plans to make any changes to Freedom Works Here.”

Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, did not immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Sunday, while reaction to the dog story exploded across the internet, Noem tried to defend herself on X (formerly Twitter).

“What I learned from my years of public service, especially leading South Dakota through COVID, is people are looking for leaders who are authentic, willing to learn from the past, and don’t shy away from tough challenges,” Noem wrote. “My hope is anyone reading this book will have an understanding that I always work to make the best decisions I can for the people in my life.”

She added, “South Dakota law states that dogs who attack and kill livestock can be put down.”

Republican lawmakers split on ad campaign

Critics argue the incident does not align with the welcoming image the state wants to project. One of those critics is Noem’s fellow Republican state Rep. Scott Odenbach, of Spearfish, who previously criticized Noem’s use of the Future Fund to pay for most of the Freedom Works Here campaign. The Future Fund is derived from a tax on employers.

“You really can’t make this stuff up,” Odenbach said. “This PR crisis provides the governor the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect — now that the VP slot appears to mercifully be off the table — on whether continued self-promotion with taxpayer Future Fund money benefits anybody. An immediate course correction would be advisable.”

State Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg, agrees. He thinks people interested in moving to a tax-friendly state – a main highlight in the ad campaign – could find that information without ads starring the governor.

“People are going to move here no matter what,” Aylward said. “We don’t need any more of these economic development programs that are pushed using taxpayer dollars. People are going to move here based off of the great things that South Dakota already offers.”

Not all Republican lawmakers are ready to give up on Freedom Works Here.

“I, like thousands of South Dakotans, consider my fur-kids to be permanent, irreplaceable members of my family,” said Sen. Michael Rohl, R-Aberdeen. “I certainly hope the next phase isn’t highlighting a need for veterinarians, but the Freedom Works Here campaign is designed to let skilled laborers across the country know of the endless opportunities available to them, and their families, in South Dakota. That message is true and resonates with Americans no matter the message bearer.”

‘As dead as Cricket’

Meanwhile, South Dakota Democrats are having a field day.

Drey Samuelson, who worked as Democratic former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson’s chief of staff for many years, said these are the types of public relations crises that ruin a political brand for life.

“I think it will stick,” he said, explaining that people don’t have to know anything about politics to have a strong opinion on a governor killing her dog. “She’s become a laughingstock. Even Fox News is laughing at her.”

He said having “Cruella Kristi” — a reference to the fictional dog-hater Cruella de Vil — continue selling South Dakota to American workers is not wise.

As for the future of the Freedom Works Here campaign, said Samuelson, “I think it’s as dead as Cricket.”