ANALYSIS: The PR industry must explain that its work is not onlyvital, but comparatively inexpensive

"Crafting a savvy public message is so important to Columbus officials that they employ 28 public information officers to do the job, reports The Columbus Dispatch. "And their salaries cost taxpayers $1.43 million a year."

"Crafting a savvy public message is so important to Columbus officials that they employ 28 public information officers to do the job, reports The Columbus Dispatch. "And their salaries cost taxpayers $1.43 million a year."

The reporter doesn't ever state that the money is being wasted, but anyone reading the story will come away with that impression, thanks to sentences such as this one: "At a time when the city is struggling financially, the $1.43 million in salaries it pays its communications staff ... could be used to hire 41 new police officers."

In San Francisco, meanwhile, the Chronicle has been questioning the use of a public affairs firm to help San Francisco International Airport communicate about a proposed runway expansion. The report says representatives of the firm were allowed to travel first class, eat at upscale restaurants, and stay at expensive hotels.

And the US Department of Housing & Urban Development has begun a review of the $1 million spent on PR by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

That investigation comes after a former PR professional confronted the authority's executive director about what she considered to be "excessive use of PR consultants."

Stories like these appear on a pretty regular basis, though it's not typical to see three in less than a month. They seem to reflect a sentiment - common in the media - that public money spent on PR is either being wasted, or worse, suggests a hijacking of public funds by unscrupulous politicos with a penchant for self-promotion.

There are certainly legitimate questions as to whether some spending on PR crosses the line between public education and the promotion of individuals (the White House heralding its role in providing tax refunds comes to mind). But much of the coverage reflects a deeper cynicism about the role of PR that our industry needs to refute.

The first thing that needs to be said is that public education is a legitimate - even vital - function of government. When new programs are introduced, people need to know about them. If the programs are important, it is in the public interest to have as many people as possible take advantage of them.

Secondly, no one ever complains when government agencies spend money on attorneys, accountants, or others whose expertise contributes to the smooth running of an organization.

And finally, most corporations spend considerably more on PR than even the most spendthrift government agency. I don't know what the city budget of Columbus is, but I'm guessing that $1 million represents a fraction of 1%; far less than a corporation the same size would spend on PR. If people want government to be run more like a corporation (with all the presumed efficiencies that suggests), they should welcome a commitment to communication rather than criticizing.

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