As the House and Senate submit legislation restricting "covert propaganda," many debate the legitimacy of fighting PR with PR.
Two weeks ago on this page we questioned the future of government PR contracts in the wake of the Ketchum "pay-for-play" controversy. We recalled what happened in LA last year after news broke of Fleishman-Hillard allegedly overbilling the city on a PR contract, when Mayor James Hahn ordered the outright cancellation of all city PR contracts. Might a similar mindset now take hold on the federal level, we wondered. It seems we might now be getting our answer. In the past two weeks, two pieces of legislation have been presented on the Hill, one in each chamber, that seek to increase congressional oversight of federal PR contracts. They would require anyone in the federal government signing a PR, advertising, or polling contract to first notify Congress, despite the fact that all such documents have always been in the public domain. But the primary purpose of both bills - at least according to the Democratic lawmakers who are sponsoring them - is to help the Bush White House break its dependency on "covert propaganda." Hence their titles: the Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act of 2005 in the House and the Stop Government Propaganda Act in the Senate. Clearly there's a little PR going on in Congress, as well.
Lack of PR panic
Thus far, the reaction of the industry has been less than panicked. Indeed, some practitioners whose livelihoods (or at least their jobs) are dependent on government PR contracts have greeted the proposed regulations, if not the indignation behind them, with little more than a yawn. "It's not something that's going to bring us down. Not at all," says Scott Widmeyer, CEO of Widmeyer Communications, which was cited by a congressional report last month as one of the most prominent firms doing PR for the government. "We can move beyond this." The primary reason for the lack of panic is simple: Neither bill is likely to become law. "This legislation now being offered will never pass," admits a senior Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[These bills] are a way to say, 'We are very concerned about this. We're concerned about the lack of internal controls and concerned that there has not been congressional oversight of anything Bush is doing.'" Ironic as it might be, these anti-PR bills are mostly PR tools. They have been presented by Democrats eager to jump on what they see as an Achilles heel for the Bush administration: its alleged inability to deal squarely with the American people. Politically speaking, these bills are in many ways a continuation of the debate over administration hype in the build-up to the war in Iraq. The other reason the industry doesn't seem too concerned about these bills is that most of what they propose - the bans on covert government publicity - are already law. Even if they did pass, they would only codify a long list of regulations already on the books that prevent taxpayer funds from being spent on purely promotional, partisan, or "self-aggrandizing" campaigns. A comprehensive list of such laws is difficult to compile, as they are scattered throughout the US legal terrain. Some are permanent parts of US Code. Some of them apply only to specific government entities. Others are tucked into subsections of annually renewed spending bills. But most of the restrictions that would be made permanent by these bills can be found in three places. First is the Publicity and Propaganda Act, which is little more than a handful of paragraphs written into annual appropriation bills. The law states: "No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the US not heretofore authorized by Congress." Vague perhaps, but more than enough to render illegal the sort of payments made to Armstrong Williams or the unmarked VNRs that have gotten Medicare and the Office of National Drug Control Policy into trouble recently (PRWeek, May 24, 2004, and January 31, 2005). Both the House and Senate bills would make this provision a permanent part of the US Code, thereby eliminating the need for Congress to reinstate them every year. Then there is the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits spending funds beyond those appropriated by Congress, and a number of statutes in Title 47 of the US Code, which require broadcasters to disclose sources of funding. Because these are already permanent parts of US law, passage of the bills currently before Congress would simply serve as a redundancy.
Of course, these would hardly be the first pieces of legislation to do little more than codify existing regulations. For example, the same could be said of Regulation Fair Disclosure, and its impact is hard to deny (PRWeek, January 31, 2005). In much the same way, it's not the regulations that scare PR people; it's the fact that PR has become the "political football du jour," as MWW CEO Michael Kempner puts it. This is how the legislation can have an impact without ever even coming to a vote. "My concern is that this gives Congress an opportunity to politicize every marketing services contract," says Kempner after reviewing summaries of the legislation. "I can see a scenario where, if you do not follow the agenda of whoever is running the Congress at the time, you could be brought before Congress and subject to scorn, ridicule, and pronouncements of malfeasance, whether you did [something wrong] or not." Indeed, there are already rumblings that Congress may convene hearings to investigate the current PR scandals. The majority party alone has the right to call such hearings, but there are plenty of Republicans who are unhappy with the administration's actions. So Kempner's vision of private-sector PR executives facing congressional scorn could soon become reality. But these bills stand to have as much impact on government communicators as they do on the private sector. If passed, the onus would be on public affairs officers to report to Congress every penny being spent on marketing services. And people in those jobs aren't exactly rushing to congressional Democrats to thank them for weighing in. "Every [government marketing] contract goes through a rigorous procurement process that is open to anyone who wants to look at it," says the public affairs head of one federal agency, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The real issue here is the problem of paying someone posing as a journalist to comment on an issue of public policy without telling people they're getting a check. This is an opportunity for some who are trying to grandstand on this issue to go a little bit farther down the road." Indeed, this official points out one major loophole of the new bills: "Press releases from congressmen get reprinted in small newspapers without source information all the time," the official says. "So any honest attempt to deal with this issue should also apply to Congress." So far the White House isn't taking sides on the legislation. "We are aware of the legislation that was just introduced and are reviewing it," says spokesman Allen Abney. Beyond that, he refers all questions on the matter to the President's comments at his January 26 press conference, in which he ordered his cabinet secretaries not to pay anyone in the media to promote his agenda. In all likelihood, both these bills will be relegated to the back burner in the coming weeks, lost in the shuffle of Iraq and Social Security reform. But the minority party has a long history of using hearings and investigations to wield power in Washington - it's often its only re- course. So these bills might not pass; they might not even come to a vote. But bear in mind, neither did Whitewater.