Inquiry Exploits Blunders, But May Be Opportunity

A Senate Subcommittee Investigation Into Use of External PR May Give the Industry a Chance to Shine

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In February, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D.-Mo., and Sen. Rob Portman, R.-Ohio, launched an investigation of 11 government agencies with a request for information on contracts for "PR, publicity, advertising and communications services."

Senator Claire McCaskill
Senator Claire McCaskill
Senator Rob Portman
The move sparked a renewed conversation about the validity of public relations as a marketing discipline. It was fueled by the argument that government agencies' use of PR services must support "public education" as opposed to "domestic propaganda," which is illegal. But in taking on the industry, Sens. McCaskill and Portman, via their roles on the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight (chairman and ranking member, respectively), are giving PR firms an opportunity to talk up their worth in a public forum.

Handling the investigation and potential hearing well could benefit the industry, especially as a string of PR missteps has fed the debate on whether the activity should be regulated.

In 2005, the Department of Education and its external PR agency Ketchum paid pundit Armstrong Williams, as part of a more-than-$200,000 contract, to promote the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind program. During the investigation, critics deemed the act propaganda. Soon after, according to a story in USA Today, the government agency told press that it had no plans to continue that kind of outreach. One of the biggest reputation tarnishers of 2011 was Burson-Marsteller's smear campaign on behalf of Facebook against Google.

But executives agree that recent investigations into PR spending haven't adversely affected the industry. In 2010, the subcommittee launched a similar investigation into the General Services Administration's decision to hire a PR agency, without a review, to help address concerns about chemical contamination in Kansas City, Mo. Rather than showcase shortcuts in the GSA's contractual process, the investigation showed that the GSA didn't have the resources to respond itself. If anyone looked bad, it was not the PR or government agencies.

It's understood that subcommittee staffers are in the early stage of this inquiry, focusing on government agencies' direct communications with the public rather than the value of external PR support. Still, PR executives are suggesting the investigation has more to do with politics than good government.

That 11 agencies are involved -- including some of the most influential and high-profile -- indicates that the subcommittee's objective is to "get press and notoriety," said Neil Dhillon, managing director of MSL Group's D.C. office. The broad sweep of subjects is meant "to show the American public that it's looking out" for taxpayers, he added. (The list includes the Education, Defense and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

In a March 15 op-ed for Roll Call, Public Relations Society of America Chairman-CEO Gerard Corbett wrote: "When faced with a tough re-election battle, what is the easiest path to winning over John Q. Public? Proposing proactive solutions that benefit your constituents, or taking on an industry you deem to have too much influence? In the case of Sens. McCaskill and Portman, the answer appears to be the latter."

The PRSA, while still promoting its cause, seems somewhat less concerned about the investigation than it was initially. "Rather than being a form of wasteful or inappropriate government spending, the reports generated from the investigation could help bolster legislators' understanding of the role and value of public relations," a spokesperson said.

And with the summer congressional recess and general election on the horizon, PR executives agree that the probe will most likely not gain steam or result in new legislation. It could do more good than harm, regardless of the outcome, according to Mr. Dhillon.

"That's where select PR firms have the ability to present testimony and do their own education and press," he said.

Harris Diamond CEO Weber Shandwick said these reviews generally find the programs worthwhile. "We've learned that marketing-information programs serve a purpose."

And considering recent scandals involving Las Vegas clown shows and Colombian prostitutes, elected officials might want to stay on PR's good side.

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