Firms must speak up quickly where stimulus funds are concerned

The Hill reported this week that two Republican senators were questioning wasteful stimulus projects, including a multimillion contract awarded to Burson-Marsteller.

The Hill reported this week that two Republican senators were questioning wasteful stimulus projects, including a multimillion contract awarded to Burson-Marsteller.

The contract sought to raise awareness about the Federal Communications Commission's mandated switch to digital TV.

While the contract information has been available at Recovery.gov for weeks, both firms initially did not respond to reporter's requests for comment, according to the story. Following publication, though, Burson posted a statement to its Web site calling the story “fundamentally inaccurate,” along with a list of where all of the money went.

Smart move, but too late. A smarter move would have been to comment initially, and to explain to the reporter the success of the campaign that was done under a short deadline of six weeks. It might have lessened the outrage over money spent as well. The campaign was targeting at-risk, hard-to-reach populations that had been missed by earlier efforts, such as non-English speakers and the elderly. By October 2009, only 0.5% of households were not prepared for the DTV transition, according to Nielsen.

In an age where the President demands transparency and news can break in minutes, to not be more proactive is unacceptable. All eyes are on Washington and how this money will be spent. News organizations, no doubt vying for page views as well as Pulitzers, are looking at the stimulus as one of the most important stories in the next year. And the issue is highly political. The success of the stimulus will be used as a benchmark for Republicans seeking to poke holes in a Democratic Congress and the Obama Administration before the next round of elections.

PR remains an industry often misunderstood or simplified by the mainstream media. Therefore silence will only be filled in by speculation, particularly in a case where the issues are as high-profile as stimulus money and involve a controversial figure, such as Burson CEO and Democratic strategist Mark Penn.

While speaking to a reporter does not ensure a fair and balanced story, chances are that the clarification will not only be appreciated but can lessen the impact of a story, and on an organization's reputation.

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