Chick discusses concerns over Fleishman audit in LA

LA City Controller Laura Chick speaks to Anita Chabria about the PR industry, recent investigations into city contracts with PR firms, and her headline-hound reputation

LA City Controller Laura Chick speaks to Anita Chabria about the PR industry, recent investigations into city contracts with PR firms, and her headline-hound reputation

Laura Chick has shaken Los Angeles' PR community with her criticisms of contracts with Fleishman-Hillard and other firms. But what does she really think of PR? The following are excerpts from a recent interview PRWeek conducted with LA's city controller. PRWeek: You've mentioned that you feel your view on PR hasn't been clearly reported. What do you think has been misinterpreted? Chick: There are some people who think I don't want the city to ever seek outside assistance from private-sector firms regarding PR consulting, and that isn't the case. PR is about communicating, and government has to communicate in a productive way to the public. So there are times when we need assistance. But in my mind, that's more for specific events or sometimes maybe specific issues that have a beginning and an end. And we also could use help in training when we have in-house staff. What I'm hoping is not that the city never has outside consultants again in PR and community relations, but that we do it much more wisely and much differently. I hope very much that I don't give a black eye to either that particular firm [Fleishman] or to PR in general. I think it's a very complex profession, a difficult one to be good in, and one that's called for especially in the private sector, but not infrequently in the public sector, as well. And in terms of the current audit we're engaged in, I'm looking to recover every dollar that was inappropriately charged if that is what we find. I never assume the outcome of the audit in advance. I'm not operating on the assumption that we were incorrectly, improperly, and fraudulently billed. But I'm surely looking for it. PRWeek: What bothered you about the contract the Department of Water & Power (DWP) had with Fleishman? Chick: It was a long-term contract, a large sum of money every year, and a contract written in a way where you could drive a truck through the gaps it left, if you were trying to figure out, looking at invoices, "What are we getting for our money?" I know it's hard to have very specific identifiable deliverables, but I don't care if it's hard. That's how we need to write contracts going forward. You can develop a plan. That plan is a real deliverable. To me, you would have goals and objectives you want to achieve. Then you would have ways to measure it. So once that first year passed where Fleishman was hired specifically to position DWP for a more competitive market, but then were retained anyway, I would have wanted to see a PR plan and a strategic plan. What were we trying to achieve for DWP, and then what were the specific things that the firm was going to do to get there? PRWeek: In going through this audit, you haven't found that kind of detail? Chick: No. Actually I can't [talk about this because the audit is still going]. What I can say on the record is whether I've seen a strategic plan. I haven't. But what I can't tell you definitively is that there wasn't one. I wouldn't normally see it in my role as city controller. But we looked at another very large PR contract. It was a subcontractor for many years on the Fleishman contract and then spun off on its own. PRWeek: Lee Andrews Group? Chick: Yeah. [It was for] $2.4 million a year, so not chump change. And I have not seen strategic plans on either of those. One of my questions about the Fleishman and the Lee Andrews Group contracts - DWP has about 23 staff that are either public information, community outreach, a variety of titles. It's a large [PR] department. And to me, what was glaring is to have these multiyear contracts with consultants and not be using them to train your in-house staff. While I told you we need help sometimes in communicating and getting the message out, or crafting the message, overall, don't you think that government public employees, especially at such a grassroots level as local government, should really be pretty savvy on how to communicate with the public? Those should be people with incredible community organizing, community outreach, and PR skills. PRWeek: Our readers would say that you can't afford those people. When people become really trained in PR or media relations, they leave because they want higher-paying jobs. Chick: Well, they might not be trained in getting their boss into the media. But DWP's in-house staff should be experts in [community relations] because there are constantly issues between that department and the public. The spin doctoring, the getting incredible media coverage, is maybe extra-level stuff. But also, we are supposed to be transparent, honest, forthright, forthcoming. And I'm not saying PR is about not telling the truth, but it is about putting a certain spin on it. For the private sector, that makes total sense to me. For the public sector, I think we need to be careful because we want it to be plain as day, and we want what we're doing to be transparent. PRWeek: Do you think DWP is at fault for crafting this kind of contract or do you think the PR firms should have had business standards that didn't allow them to enter into a contract like this? Chick: Both. But it's kind of hard to really put the onus on the consulting firm. You know, how tempting to have a $3 million contract a year for six years running? I wouldn't expect a firm to walk away from that. PRWeek: People have said that you're incredibly media savvy and you've raised the controller's office to a whole new level of visibility. Do you think that's true? Chick: I have said in speeches that my detractors are accusing me of getting too much press, and I plead guilty. I seek it because if I don't get public attention for what I'm trying to accomplish - which is to change the way this city operates and does it's business - nothing is going to change. I was on the City Council for eight years. I'm not inexperienced or unsophisticated about how much the public cares and pays attention. I don't like getting headlines at other people's expense. But if the other people are doing things wrong or stupidly or in a way that is not to the benefit of the people we represent, then I'm sorry, but I'm not the cause of the problem. I'm just putting the spotlight on it. PRWeek: How early in the audit process do you bring in your communications staff? Chick: Well, [communications director] Rob [Wilcox] is involved almost at my side. So if and when I'm briefed, so is he. Because he can't play the role I want him to play unless he really knows the audit as well as I do. PRWeek: What role do you want him to play? Chick: In communicating to both the media and the public, I don't want him to just take the easy summary message. I really want him to know what the audit has found so that it's a balanced approach. It's not just going after the glaring things. PRWeek: The one thing often said in articles about you is that you're doing all this because you have your own political agenda. Is that true? Chick: Oh, I know! It's kind of the sad commentary on the cynicism that has grown around politics. I actually ran because I didn't like the way I saw things being done. And I never had any intention of making a political career of it. So I played with this whole thing that I would run for mayor because I was angry at this mayor, and I was wondering if anybody was going to step in here. But I was never really serious about it. I unabashedly say now that I want to be re-elected. Beyond that, I have no plans or intentions, except to have a knock-your-socks-off second term.

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