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Congress Investigates PR: Will It Like What It Sees?

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As the public relations industry grows in size and stature, it is coming under increasing scrutiny by the public, media and government. But not all scrutiny is bad, especially if it helps broaden the understanding of a profession and advances its role and value.

Twice in the past year there have been investigations into public relations spending by the federal government. The most recent was launched in late February by Senator Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) and Senator Rob Portman (R–Ohio), who have triggered a wide-ranging investigation of the federal government’s use of public relations and advertising services. At the initial stages of this inquiry the Subcommittee is seeking data for the past five years pertaining to “contracts for the acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising, communications, or similar services” at 11 separate Federal agencies.  We have our concerns, which we expressed directly with the Senators and through an oped published in Roll Call.

It isn’t surprising that government spending on public relations is being scrutinized during times of economic austerity, when politicians of all stripes compete to be the most prudent with taxpayers’ funds. Such scrutiny — if conducted fairly and objectively — may prove valuable for public relations.

Related: PRSA to Congress: Don’t Kill the PR Messenger (March 15, 2012)

An objective review of public relations spending by government will reveal that there is a long history of taxpayer funds being used for good work on behalf of society. It is well known that better prenatal care reduces adverse post-birth health problems — and that communicating the availability and importance of care is crucial to good outcomes and lower overall costs for society. Nearly every state in the country has invested in economic development campaigns, efforts that are measured for efficacy. Effective crisis communications can literally save the lives of you and your neighbors. The list of positive changes in society resulting from public relations goes on and on.

At the same time, though, the federal government is massive. Just as there can be no doubt that public relations does good for both business and society, there is also no denying that at any point in time there’s likely to be a government program somewhere that could be administered more effectively, that should be reassessed or that has outlived its usefulness. The challenge is that such inquiries need to be undertaken in a balanced and objective manner – and this is where the concerns emerge.

As reported in Roll Call, an aide to Sen. McCaskill said, “Over the past three years, we’ve seen accounts of wasteful federal spending on PR contracts to defend the administration’s unpopular policies” and “this investigation will further probe this Administration’s use of taxpayer-funded spin.” Setting aside the pejorative use of the word “spin” to describe the work of professional communicators, this statement takes on particular resonance. According to Roll Call, the Senator “is locked in a tight race for re-election herself and has been attempting to distance herself from Obama and the Democratic Party.”

All taxpayers should be gratified that the federal government scrutinizes how our tax dollars are being spent – indeed, there are entire arms of the Government – such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – that have long been dedicated to providing an objective review of government spending.

But for public relations professionals — and the public at large — it will be important that any inquiry on this subject be balanced.  A balanced inquiry will acknowledge that the government has a legitimate role — and obligation — to communicate with the public. A balanced inquiry will admit that outsourcing services can be a cost-effective way for the government to more carefully shepherd public resources, and to tap expertise that it does not own — at a time when the public relations profession provides a strong and growing role in providing jobs that are sorely needed by the beleaguered U.S. economy.

Finally, that there is recognition by our elected leaders of government’s fundamental problem: Americansdistrust of their elected leaders, which diminishes legislators’ ability to lead.

Trust, as PR professionals know, begins with appropriate conduct and good communication, and public relations is vital to that end.  This is something that the Senators leading this effort do seem to recognize, as both utilize taxpayer funded web sites and social media to communicate with their constituents (see the well designed sites for Senator McCaskill or Senator Portman.)  In fact, looking at the Senators’ own websites one can quickly see that partisanship is in the eye of the beholder – which is what will make this inquiry especially challenging.  Was a particular contract let to “advance the Administration’s agenda at taxpayer expense?”  Or, was it taken to efficiently serve a legitimate need and role of government?

Carl von Clausewitz, an early 19th-century military theorist, famously said that “War is politics carried out by other means.” Politics, like war, can produce collateral damages, and all public relations professionals should follow this inquiry to ensure that our profession is fairly assessed during the highly charged atmosphere of an election year.

William M. Murray is president and chief operating officer of the Public Relations Society of America. A version of this post original ran in the Institute for Public Relations blog.

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William Murray

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