By Justin Gray
WASHINGTON — Taxpayers are footing the bill for billions of dollars of highly paid public relations pros working for the federal government.
The money is going to big-time PR firms and in-house public affairs officers.
"Welcome to the second largest PR firm in the world, the United States government," said Adam Andrzejewski, who represents transparency watchdog group Open the Books.
More than $4.3 billion in taxpayer money has been spent on public relations since 2007, according to Open the Books.
About half of that money goes to private-sector PR firms.
One global PR firm, Ketchum, charges the federal government $88 an hour for the work of an intern.
It's not alone. Other firms are billing more than $40, $50 and $60 an hour for interns
"What we found was, quite frankly, stunning," Andrzejewski said.
About half the money spent on PR goes to government salaries of public affairs officers, and those jobs come with high salaries.
The average public affairs officer salary is more than $100,000 a year. In fact, 1,858 public affairs officers earn six-figure salaries.
"It may cost, but you have to look at the value you are receiving," said Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service.
From travel warnings and health updates about the Zika virus, to the Department of Homeland Security's "See something, say something" anti-terrorism campaign, to Smokey Bear, Stier said public affairs officers are a vital part of government.
"There are a lot of ways in which, if the government doesn’t do a good job of putting information out in an interesting way, then the public won’t really understand it," Stier said.
Of the 10 government agencies that spend the most on public affairs, none would agree to an on-camera interview, although several sent written statements.
The statements highlighted work like informing seniors about Social Security and veterans about their benefits.
The EPA said Open the Books "cherry picks and falsely misrepresents the work."
But Andrzejewski said the sheer amount of taxpayer money being spent invites honest questions.
"We have taxpayer dollars being spent to convince taxpayers to spend more taxpayer dollars on the growth of government,"Andrzejewski said.
Money spent on outside PR firms rose 47 percent during the Obama presidency, according to Open the Books.