ANALYSIS <b>Government Contracts</b>: Clarifying their role will help firms keep public contracts

Government PR contracts are now the subject of public ire because the industry hasn't been effective in explaining its purpose to people. The irony that led to the recent cancellation of all PR contracts with the city of Los Angeles is so maddeningly circular it's hard to know where to break in with an explanation. The scenario is not, however, unprecedented. It goes something like this:

Government PR contracts are now the subject of public ire because the industry hasn't been effective in explaining its purpose to people. The irony that led to the recent cancellation of all PR contracts with the city of Los Angeles is so maddeningly circular it's hard to know where to break in with an explanation. The scenario is not, however, unprecedented. It goes something like this:

When a state, local, or even federal government agency needs to educate the public on some important matter - like new health services available to seniors or a change in laws regarding where you can buy your electricity - that agency will often contract with a PR firm. Why? Because PR firms are good at communicating important information to the public. Or at least sometimes they are. If things go smoothly, the public never even knows that a PR firm is being used and people get the information they need. But should something peripheral bring the collaboration to light - like recent accusations that Fleishman-Hillard won city contracts in exchange for making political contributions to LA mayor James K. Hahn's campaign - all hell breaks loose. Taxpayer watchdog groups cry foul to anyone who'll listen, claiming governments have no business using taxpayer dollars on fancy "spin" campaigns. The media, of course, take the bait, and the public gets aroused. Before too long, legislators are jumping on the budget-hawk bandwagon, decrying the misuse of public dollars for "political" purposes. The pressure builds, and pretty soon the contract is canceled. In this case, all PR contracts with LA were wiped out in a single grandiose gesture of supposed municipal integrity. So the flow of vital information to the public is lost because of a misunderstanding of what PR agencies do. In other words, the PR industry's chronic inability to make the public understand its work once again ruins its chance to educate the public and loses some firms a lot of money. Public misunderstanding of PR The fact is hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on PR contracts at the federal level alone. Are some of them wasteful, even unsavory? Certainly. Why should PR contracts be different from any other government venture? Are they more wasteful than, say, spending billions of dollars developing a tank the Pentagon will declare obsolete before it gets around to buying it? Certainly not. But strange as it might sound, PR might scare the public more than tanks. After all, Americans are pretty confident the government won't send a Crusader to their front door. Misinformation or "spin," however, is another story, which begins to explain why this scenario repeats itself. "This misunderstanding has been going on for at least 100 years," says Dr. James Grunig, a professor of PR at the University of Maryland. "I suppose the mythology is such that people believe PR has this great persuasive power over people, and they're afraid the government might use it over them. "In reality, it doesn't have that much power, but it can have great benefits in facilitating dialog," he adds. "There is a perception right away that PR firms are doing only media relations and the classic media 'flacking,' which is not the case," says Yolan Laporte, EVP with Ogilvy PR and the lead on a number of major National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control campaigns in recent years. "We have a very proud record of 20 years of true public-health education in some major disease prevention and health promotion activities." Even so, the public's paranoia might not be totally unfounded. As Scott Widmeyer, president of Widmeyer Communications, points out, the government has dabbled in the kinds of PR practices conspiracy theorists spend their evenings blogging about. "In the last couple of years, the Department of Defense has been using quasi-PR and research agencies to do almost undercover research on how Americans are being viewed in foreign countries, how we're being viewed by the media," he says. "That's a little suspect." And since the American takeover of Iraq, Pentagon contracts have crossed the line from public education to media control. With Saddam Hussein's state-run TV network rudderless after the regime fell, the US hired a major defense contractor to establish the dominant means of information dispersal in Iraq. Such contracts get much more attention in this country than, say, the Department of Health and Human Services' 20-year campaign to spread the word about HIV prevention. The LA situation Domestic contracts occasionally cause suspicion, as well. The current Los Angeles situation is a perfect example. LA city controller Laura Chick has long targeted a multimillion dollar contract that the Lee Andrews Group holds with the Department of Water and Power (DWP) for work on its environmental issues - and not just because they're PR contracts. She repeatedly has told the media that the DWP has a monopoly on services in the area, leaving her to wonder how much PR it needs to retain customers. But that criticism has morphed into the too-simple PR-bashing that often stems from these situations. The LA Daily News recently dubbed the DWP the "Department of Water and Public Relations." An editorial cartoon in the same paper showed a sinister-looking snake labeled "public relations" easing out of an open manhole, with the manhole cover labeled "Department of Water and Power." But regardless of how questionable certain contracts might be, they hardly justify the wholesale canceling of PR deals with the city, which the PRSA eagerly pointed out in a widely dispersed press release last month. "By severing relationships with agencies, the mayor may well be bringing to a halt programs that benefit the people of the Los Angeles area," said PRSA president and CEO Del Galloway in the release, which cited at least half a dozen examples of LA public-education campaigns run by PRSA members. They included "programs to promote recycling, encourage the appropriate use of the 911 emergency number, [and] support public participation in parklands development." Unfortunately, the release is too little too late. The time to promote the good public work of PR firms was before the scandal, not after. It's a tired question, but it must be asked again: Why is the PR industry so bad at taking its own advice? Why does it require a scandal of this size for the industry to step up and say, "Look at the good work we're doing in your city"? For his part, Ogilvy's Laporte makes no apologies for keeping his firm's work under wraps. "We do not toot our own horn for these campaigns," he says. Even in light of the recent controversy, he rejects the suggestion that the model be tweaked. But others disagree. Grunig thinks the industry and government should take advantage of this unfortunate moment and start a frank public discussion of government PR contracts. "This could perhaps be an opportunity to explain a little bit about the nature of PR [and government work] because most people don't understand it, and the media certainly doesn't understand it very well," he says. "I think it's going to require a long-term effort." Widmeyer, who estimates his firm gets 20% of its income from government contracts, has a more specific suggestion. "If I were a public official in LA right now, I would urge that there be a little mini-summit where you get all the players at the table from the various [government] agencies that award contracts and all the [PR] agencies that bid on them, and you sit down in a public forum and you communicate," he says. It's hard to imagine a simpler solution. Unfortunately, it's just as hard to imagine PR execs voluntarily discussing even their most "public" work with a public audience. Maybe if someone issued an RFP ...
  • Additional reporting by Anita Chabria.

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