Proposed EPA image push draws fire over its funding

WASHINGTON: Plans by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hire a PR firm to promote its research are drawing criticism from an environmental advocacy group, as well as from the national media.

WASHINGTON: Plans by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hire a PR firm to promote its research are drawing criticism from an environmental advocacy group, as well as from the national media.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) last week asked the EPA's inspector general to review the legality of launching an image campaign using funds that would otherwise be available for public health and environmental research.

"EPA's scientists are telling us that there is not enough funding for vital environmental and health research, but there seems to be no shortage of money for media manipulation," said Rebecca Roose, PEER program director.

PEER brought the story to The New York Times and provided copies of recent PR contracts.

The Times picked up the story, reporting that the campaign comes on the heels of the controversy around Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator paid to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

In the RFI in question, the EPA stated that the proposed work would involve "corporate image" enhancement and the development of story ideas about the agency. The contracts could pay as much as $1 million a year for up to five years.

"It's looking at all of the web content and coming up with story ideas and doing spreadsheets to see what publications might be interested in stories," said Eryn Witcher, press secretary for the EPA's Office of Public Affairs. "We want to use less than 1% of the budget to convey all of this research and findings to the public."

The EPA has already awarded two contracts, totaling approximately $150,000, to JDG Communications, a firm based in Falls Church, VA.

One contract calls for JDG to investigate how other government agencies conduct scientific research and communicate it to the public. The other involves combing the EPA's website for information that is not reaching the public.

The scrutiny of the RFI parallels the recent skepticism of government PR contracts.

But Alan Krupnick, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan DC think tank, defended the contract, adding that the EPA's website is voluminous and complicated.

"In that sense, I think it's a good thing to have somebody thinking about how to reach the public with research results as long as they are even-handed and reach out with the good research, as well as research that challenges some of the policies that the EPA has," he said.

Krupnick added that it behooves the EPA to share its research. "The public has a lot of misperceptions about the consequences of environmental regulations, what the regulations are, what the state of the environment is," he said.

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