LETTER FROM AMERICA: Govt spend on PR should be applauded not criticised - Media condemn public PR spend as a waste of resources, but if government is to be as efficient as business, good PR needs to be paid for, says US commentator Paul Holmes

'Crafting a savvy public message is so important to Columbus officials that they employ 28 information officers to do the job,' reports the Columbus Dispatch. 'And their salaries cost taxpayers $1.43m a year.'

The reporter doesn't come out and say the money is being wasted, but anyone reading the story comes away with that impression, thanks to sentences such as: 'At a time when the city is struggling financially, the $1.43m in salaries it pays its comms staff ... could hire 41 new police officers.'

The San Francisco Chronicle has been questioning the use of a PA firm to help San Francisco International Airport communicate about a runway expansion. The report says the firm's staff travel first class, eat at upmarket restaurants and stay at expensive hotels.

And finally, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has begun a review of the estimated £650,000 spent on PR by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. That investigation comes after a former PRO confronted the authority's director about what she considered to be 'excessive use of PR consultants'.

Stories such as these appear on a regular basis, though it's not typical to see three in less than a month. They reflect a sentiment - common in the media - that public money spent on PR is either being wasted, or worse, spent by unscrupulous politicos with a penchant for self-promotion.

There are questions about whether some spending on PR crosses the line between public education and the promotion of individual politicians. But the coverage reflects a cynicism about the role of PR that PROs should refute.

First, public education is a legitimate, even vital, government function. When new programmes are introduced, it's important to let people know about them. If the programme is important, presumably it is in the public interest to have as many people as possible take advantage of it.

Second, no-one complains when government agencies spend money on lawyers or accountants or others whose expertise contributes to the running of an organisation.

And finally, most corporations spend considerably more on PR than even the most spendthrift government agency. I don't know what the city budget of Columbus is, but I'm guessing £650,000 represents a fraction of one per cent; far less than a company the same size would spend on PR.

If people want government to be run more like a corporation - with all the presumed efficiencies that suggests - they should welcome a commitment to communication rather than simply criticising.

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