Los Angeles County defends $1.9m in COVID-19 PR work with two agencies

The county’s sheriff said it has dozens of comms employees on staff and didn’t need to hire Mercury or Fraser Communications, whose work ranges from maintaining social feeds to translation.

LOS ANGELES: Los Angeles County is defending its decision to hire Mercury Public Affairs and Fraser Communications for COVID-19-related work that has been criticized as wasteful. 

The county brought on the two shops in mid-March to help manage crisis communications for the pandemic, said Lennie LaGuire, director of county-wide communications for Los Angeles County’s chief executive office. 

The initial contracts with the two agencies cost the county $200,000 each, LaGuire said. However, the county has spent approximately $1.9 million for their services, according to reports from Los Angeles TV station Fox 11, which LaGuire confirmed.

Critics have said they doubt Los Angeles County needed to spend the money. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the station that the county employs dozens of communications staffers. 

Neither Mercury nor Fraser representatives replied to requests seeking comment about their work for the county. 

LaGuire said supplementing the county’s comms infrastructure during the crisis was a responsible decision.

“The minute we recognized the scope of this global pandemic that was bearing down on us, we realized we needed help to expand our capacity,” she added. “We went with two firms that were already well regarded and were already working with the county.”

LaGuire said L.A. County has 41 positions categorized as public information, public affairs, community information, marketing and communications or training and communications. Most county departments have at least one media representative, she said, and may also have staffers managing public affairs, special events, governmental relations, web design and social media.

The county’s information center handling COVID-19 communications has 28 employees, she said, handling media briefings and inquiries, social media, website updates, translation support and external affairs, though not all are communications staffers. 

LaGuire declined to address Villanueva’s specific critiques, which she described as political, but said Mercury and Fraser were needed because the county comms infrastructure lacked the bandwidth and specific capabilities for the crisis. 

“It’s a huge job, and we would not have been doing our duty to the public if we had not brought in the help we needed to muster to accomplish this communications mission,” LaGuire said.

Specifically, the two firms augmented county comms staff by maintaining websites and social feeds, creating external video content and photography and translating content, she said. They also helped with outreach to stakeholder groups like professional organizations, chambers of commerce and faith-based organizations and provided capabilities the county lacked, like the ability to create motion graphics for Instagram. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has committed to reimbursing the county for the money it has paid Mercury and Fraser, which is “validation that FEMA gets it.” 

“FEMA understands that in an emergency, communicating with diverse communities is really important,” she added. 

The county also said it expects FEMA to refund all money it is paying the two firms for their communications work. 

“We anticipate this will be a reimbursable activity moving forward as we continue to do everything we can to inform and engage our diverse communities to stay safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery now underway,” the county said in an emailed statement. 

LaGuire said L.A. county’s contract with Mercury is set to expire on October 31 and the Fraser work order is scheduled to end on June 30.

The county’s Department of Public Health issued another work order solicitation on May 27 for its next round of anticipated COVID-19 media outreach and communications needs. Only vendors already on the department’s master agreement list for media services can apply; proposals are due by June 19.

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