Investment of public money in PR is a net win

Every time a government communications contract or marketing services agreement using taxpayers' money is awarded, it opens up a can of worms waiting to be exploited by media outlets looking for easy copy or those with a particular political agenda.

Every time a government communications contract or marketing services agreement using taxpayers' money is awarded, it opens up a can of worms waiting to be exploited by media outlets looking for easy copy or those with a particular political agenda.

Whether it is spending public money on contracts to communicate the dangers of smoking, texting while driving, driving while drunk, eating fatty foods, or to promote tourism, access to benefits, or the features of the Affordable Care Act, appealing to the emotive gut feeling that this is a “waste of public money” is an easy win.

But if you subscribe to the premise that marketing and communications works, which we surely do at PRWeek, a different perspective makes much more sense than the above kneejerk reaction.

Effective public relations, advertising, and marketing – and the key word here is effective – produces changes in behavior, and if those changes in behavior result in healthier kids, fewer deaths on the road, and more tourism dollars in crisis-hit areas, the net benefits far outweigh the associated public investment in marcomms.

This week, DC-based integrated agency Reingold won a $13.8 million contract from the Department of Veterans Affairs to raise awareness of benefits for which veterans are eligible following their service.

Fewer than 50% of veterans are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled when they return to their communities following active service. This work is designed to significantly up that percentage and ensure veterans have the best chance to make a new life for themselves after often-traumatic experiences serving their country.

You would imagine few would argue with this initiative, although you would be surprised. But, either way, the campaign will make perfect financial sense if it results in greater takeup of benefits. If more veterans take up their benefits smaller numbers will slip into poverty, mental health difficulties, unemployment, alcoholism, and crime – all factors associated with those leaving service, especially those who were engaged in conflict areas.

Investment of public money up front saves much larger amounts down the line. Consider the recent Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The most-awarded campaign in the 60-year history of the festival – which won the PR Lions Grand Prix - was Dumb Ways to Die, a smart social PSA produced in Australia by McCann for privately operated but publicly owned rail service Metro Trains Melbourne that reduced the amount of serious train injuries by 21%.

The investment resulted in fewer injured kids, hence there were fewer traumatized parents and less strain on health services, plus fewer delays on the public transport network. The work caused a change in behavior that was a win-win all round, again far outweighing the initial investment.

Another campaign based on public money that has caused controversy recently is MWW's $25 million contract to promote tourism in New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy. Local papers and politicians are having a field day having discovered that MWW's bid was more than $2 million more expensive to the state than rival Sigma's. The controversy is compounded because MWW used Gov. Chris Christie (R) in its campaign, a strategy Sigma's proposal eschewed.

MWW would no doubt point out that Christie is the “hottest” politician in the country right now, admired by people on both sides of the political tracks, and an all-round "good guy" who epitomizes Jersey and is an obvious choice to front a campaign. Detractors say state governors should not be used in such marketing initiatives and that this activity is nothing more than a lightly concealed commencement of Christie's attempt to run for higher office.

This is not the place to get into the rights and wrongs of those arguments, but the ultimate proof of effectiveness will be in the pudding. If the “Stronger than the Storm” jingle-filled ads and surrounding marcomms activity encourage vacationers back to the area in droves and more New Jerseyans and visitors shop locally, it will be deemed effective and will have more than repaid the investment.

Effective PR, communications, and marketing results in changes in behavior that benefit the company, brand, or organization commissioning the work – and that philosophy applies just as much to projects funded by public money as it does to purely commercial work.

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