Corbett: Don’t Kill the Public Relations Messenger

Posted March 14, 2012 at 3:41pm

The Senate’s investigation into government use of public relations services is detrimental to restoring the public’s trust in politicians.

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. Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) and Rob Portman (R–Ohio), the answer appears to be the latter. As Roll Call reported Feb. 29, the pair is trying to appease cost-conscious voters with a “wide-ranging investigation” of the federal government’s use of public relations and advertising services.

As chairman of an organization that represents 32,000 public relations professionals in the United States, I share the Senators’ concern that the government prudently spends taxpayer dollars. What I question, however, is their motivation and seeming interest in using the PR industry as a punching bag for America’s dysfunctional political system.

In an era of disastrously low trust in government and politicians, McCaskill and Portman’s investigation may be missing the proverbial boat. It disregards public relations’ central value to government: its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparent and honest communications between the government and its citizens.

Therefore, any investigation into the government’s use of PR firms should not be undertaken unilaterally. It must be met by an equally robust examination of how the government communicates with the public and how it can better use innovative PR firms and professionals to best reach and inform citizens.

Killing the messenger won’t make the government’s public trust and transparency issues disappear.

All stakeholders in society — including governments themselves — must participate in vigorously and honestly communicating their goals, programs, objectives and knowledge to the public at large.

The benefits of government use of PR firms and services are numerous. Whether educating the public about government programs, providing information on public health and safety, attracting businesses to an economic enterprise zone or any of dozens of other areas, governments have a clear role in communicating effectively and efficiently to the public.

The U.S. public relations industry is also growing the economy at a time when jobs are needed all across America. The PR industry will add 66,000 jobs to the American economy by 2018, according to U.S. News & World Report. That’s no small feat, especially in this economy.

The Senators’ concern for careful spending by the federal government is shared by many in the public relations industry. We believe that organizations can, at times, benefit from contracting out certain services, including public relations work.

Government employees seem to agree.

During a 2011 investigation — led by McCaskill — into the hiring of a PR firm to manage community outreach for the Kansas City General Services Administration Regional Office after a chemical spill, GSA spokeswoman Angela Brees advocated the use of external PR firms for government communications campaigns. Brees told the Washington Post that the GSA hired an outside PR firm because it was “short-staffed” and “needed someone to guide the philosophy [for properly informing the public] because [the office] didn’t have the necessary resources” to assist in its public-information effort and the Environmental Protection Agency was unable to help.

Despite evidence of public relations’ immeasurable value to society, McCaskill and Portman still believe it’s worthwhile to pursue this investigation. Or do they? According to aides quoted by Roll Call, the Senators “concede that what the Obama administration is doing [by hiring and using external PR services] likely is legal.”

So why undertake this investigation?

We’re not advocating that the federal government waste taxpayer dollars on services it may not need. However, we believe there is benefit to the administration employing PR firms to more efficiently and transparently inform Americans.

This investigation may appease voters. But a bump in the polls won’t solve government’s fundamental problem: Americans’ distrust of their elected leaders. Trust begins with good communication, and public relations is vital to that end.

Gerard F. Corbett is chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.