A simple plan by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to hire Edelman, a private PR firm, is now making headlines.
The agency—which operates within the Department of Health and Human Services—has raised red flags
about the amount of taxpayer dollars the government shells out for "PR, advertising and propaganda." (Yes, that’s how the industry has been defined on Capitol Hill since 1949.) According to a post on FederalNewsRadio.com:
Federal law prohibits the use of appropriated federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes, but as the Congressional Research Service report
finds, no single agency tracks advertising spending for all federal agencies, and few government-wide restrictions exist that define legal advertising from prohibited propaganda.
In December, Open the Books, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, released a report
titled, "The Department of Self-Promotion." A recent story in PR Week
said the report criticized the federal government’s use of external PR, citing
more than $2 billion in outside spending from 2007 to 2014. During the same period, PR staff increased by 15 percent, according to the report.
In mid-September, public relations firm Edelman sent an e-mail to a few reporters on behalf of an unnamed federal agency asking for insights on helping "refine their agency messaging." It asked the reporters to "keep the conversation confidential" and not to "report on anything discussed in the interview." For participating, Edelman offered to "donate $175 to a charity on your behalf."
The story caught the attention of Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican who serves as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. It also brought a response from Brad Stone, a spokesman for SAMHSA, who confirmed the strategy:
The Edelman effort is information-gathering in nature, and designed to provide SAMHSA with an enhanced understanding of how it could better meet the interests and needs of the behavioral health care community.
Enzi and others—including some PR professionals and journalists—are questioning why SAMSHA would need a contractor when it employs PR staffers. Also noteworthy is that SAMSHA submitted a fiscal 2016 budget request
for $16 million for "public awareness and support." Consider this reader’s response
to the Post article:
In 2014 alone, more than 3,000 federal public affairs officers were employed by more than 200 federal agencies, and more than half — 1,858 public affairs officers — took a base salary of at least $100,000. Given the number of public affairs officers on its payroll, the [Open the Books]
report claims the U.S. government is now the "second largest public relations firm in the world."
The post went on to highlight various private PR and communications firms that earned big bucks in 2014 with government contracts:
- Nearly $88 million was paid to Laughlin, Marinaccio & Owens.
- About $57.5 million went to Young & Rubicam.
- Almost $48 million was awarded to Ogilvy PR Worldwide.
- More than $42 million was paid to Fleishman-Hillard.
A number of comments
were posted in response to the O’Dwyer’s article, including this one from the chief executive of a PR and communications company that works with Fortune 500 companies:
To determine the extent of outside spending on PR and media relations, Enzi penned a letter
to Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget. He mentioned the Post article and requested a copy of SAMSHA’s contract with Edelman. Now the Government Accountability Office has been tasked with an agency-by-agency audit, as indicated in Enzi’s letter:
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote a similar letter
in November to the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He referred to the "advertising and PR black box." It read in part:
Please provide a list of all agency advertising, public relations and media relations expenditures from FY 2011 to the present. Furthermore, for FY 2014 to the present please provide a reason why each advertising decision was made and the source of the funds.
A post on GovExec.com
titled, "Federal Agencies to Receive Audit into Their PR Spending," prompted an array of comments, including this one: