The Environmental Protection Agency's research office issued a mundane RFP for a PR firm and The New York Times seized on it as the latest example of government funds being directed to manipulate the public, rather than serve it.
Another manifestation, clearly, of the polarized political environment, continued fallout from the Armstrong Williams issue, and the aggressiveness of interest groups in exploiting both of these realities for media hits.
A non-story from the start, Felicity Barringer's Times headline screamed, "Public relations campaign for research office at EPA may include ghostwritten articles." As one of my contacts quipped, "Maybe she thinks real ghosts will be employed to write articles. In that case, I see her point."
But even given this particular article's specious premise, it is becoming even more critical for government agency communicators to defend themselves and those firms they choose to retain, and tangibly demonstrate their goals and their effectiveness in reaching them. The EPA was asked to account for its decision to retain external services, but being reactive is no longer enough.
After all, proving the value of PR to stakeholders, while still open to some interpretation, is now a mainstream objective of the whole industry. The private sector is increasingly demanding measurable ROI, both from its agencies and its in-house teams. Public communications teams must do the same for their in-house and external operations.
Some critics of these government agencies might say there are reasons why they don't want to become more specifically accountable. One former public communicator told me that some in-house teams may be sub-par because of the difficulties in getting rid of ineffective employees, as well as recalibrating the departments as a whole. The use of external agencies, in some cases, may be to compensate for weak in-house teams, rather than to bolster the efforts of a strong one.
Hopefully that is the exception rather than the rule. There is no doubt that there are some terrific PR teams in the public sector, setting goals and measuring against them. PRWeek is uniquely positioned to see a lot of great work, even if the general public never understands the role of communications in making it happen. The vast majority may never know or care, but key influencers need to be educated, just as the corporate PR team must prove its value to the C-suite.
PR firms are understandably roiling over the fact that communications' role in government is under fire, particularly because the engagement of an external firm seems to be what gets everyone hopping right now. Op-eds have been written, panel discussions convened, industry associations energized.
By comparison, government public affairs leaders are absent, even as their jobs are routinely equated with propaganda and spin. This is not only an issue for departments that retain or hire PR firms, in spite of recent coverage. The fact is that every office is becoming more vulnerable to the combative political climate. Pretty soon, the discussion could turn to a debate over the relevance of
in-house government communications altogether: Who is ready to defend it? Those ghosts my friend joked about are in danger of becoming all too real.