California High-Speed Rail Authority reissues PR contract

SACRAMENTO: The California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to re-bid a $9 million PR contract that was called into question by some authority board members and media outlets.

SACRAMENTO: The California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to re-bid a $9 million PR contract that was called into question by some authority board members and media outlets.

The state agency planned to award the contract to Mercury Public Affairs, following a competitive review, said Jeffrey Barker, deputy director for communications, policy, and public outreach for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Edelman, Fleishman-Hillard, Porter Novelli, and the incumbent, Deutschman Communications Group, also pitched the account, which was expected to start in mid-September and end in June 2014. Nine firms, in total, responded to the bid.

Following criticism earlier this month, Barker said that the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided to post the bid again and undergo a second review process to ensure that there were no continuing concerns about the contract.

Mercury, which was not available for comment as of publication, can pitch again.

“The process we went through was solid and we would defend it to the wall,” Barker said. “We went by the state's procedures and it was a very clear and unanimous decision. However, with a project this size, this important, we want to go above and beyond in order to convince Californians that this is an example of a government project done right.”

Specifically, critics questioned the hiring of a firm whose founders once worked for the state's governor. Barker's background as deputy communications director for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's office was also brought into question, in part because he had worked with Mercury partners Adam Mendelsohn's and Steve Schmidt, both of whom previously handled strategy and communications work with the governor.

Work on the account includes the management of the authority's Web site, brochures, media relations, and public meetings for the public, elected officials, and transportation and environmental groups.

Barker, who has the only communications position for the Sacramento-based agency, is one of the nine state staff members. The selected firm will act as the authority's communications team and will report directly to the rail authority.

“This is a kind of unique government entity,” said Barker. “We do most of our work through contractors… Since the state entity doesn't really have a huge staff, essentially what we're looking for is people to replace a communications staff.”

The incumbent firm was originally brought on as a subcontractor to Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction, engineering, and design firm that is acting as the program management team for the rail authority.

“If we can build it the way we've envisioned, it will be largest infrastructure project ever constructed in the United States history,” said Barker. “So we need to do everything we can to make sure Californians are aware of all of its details.”

He added that the authority expects to bring a recommendation to the board in early November.

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