Thursday, January 24, 2013

City still skittish about PR

UPDATE (1/29): The City Council committee reviewing these contracts has delayed a decision on whether to overrule the Airport Commission's decision.  PRSA-LA Chapter president Steve Roth testified at the committee meeting and provided a letter.  We expect this matter to come back to the committee within the next two weeks.

 The City of Los Angeles' 8-year-old saga over using public relations agencies comes up again this week. It's time for all PR pros in the city to cry "foul" and tell everyone to get "get over it" and realize that Public Relations has a very proper role in government.

Two councilmen are questioning a pending contract with the well-regarded Phelps agency for "public outreach and education." (This is the now-popular phrase used with government PR contracts to avoid the words "public relations."  More on that later).

One LA Times story (above) quotes the airport's government affairs director. The better quotes, I believe, are from their managing director for public relations (see, someone not afraid to use those words) Mary Grady, who is a communications veteran and well-regarded PR pro in LA.  Funny how a newspaper has one set of stories in a blog, then their "final" story looks different.

Why PR contracts in LA are controversial goes back to 2004, when the mayor cancelled all PR contracts in the wake of a scandal involving a major PR firm with political ties to the mayor. The local GM of that agency went to jail for over-billing the city.   PRSA and its Los Angeles chapter put up a big fight then, arguing that the over-billing issue was an isolated incident and against our Code of Ethics. One incident should not prompt a ban on all PR work.  We complained about why PR should be treated any differently than other outside vendors, such as engineers?  There are plenty of incidents involving bad contracting with other professions and services, yet the city never instituted a ban on an entire industry.

Ever since, the Los Angeles PRSA chapter has maintained its advocacy efforts in hopes of removing any stigma in the eyes of public officials.  This included a study commissioned by the chapter to monetize the value of the PR industry on the LA economy.

Disclosure:  I once worked for an agency that provided public affairs and community relations services to the Los Angeles Airport. This work was performed more than 10 years ago.  But, for anyone who has lived in Los Angeles for more than 5 years knows that LAX has a lot of issues - primarily with expanding its runways to handle more flights. What I was doing more than 10 years ago hasn't gone away - they are still fighting for an expansion.

So, we have two issues here:

  1. A giant public agency like the Los Angeles World Airports is bound to need outside public relations help.  Aside from their long-running effort to expand, the airport touches millions of lives every day in the city and around the world.  The local battle over expansion has lasted years and is highly complex, especially given the number of organized groups opposing expansion.  There are TONS of meetings to hold, REAMS of information to share and a huge GOAL of communicating to various audiences the importance of the airport to the region and why it needs to expand.  These efforts require dedicated specialists. The in-house team simply is not big enough, or has the authority to advocate or the various specialties required to carry out the multiple tasks required for this effort. The sad fact is that the same LA City Council members complaining about money spent on an outside agency would be the very same ones questioning why the LAWA in-house communications team is so large (should they hire the requisite number of PR pros to meet the tasks before the agency).  The complex needs for outreach and education do not go away.  Without a strong communications (oops. public relations) effort, the expansion opponents would win because they will have no one to counter the many-times false and unsubstantiated claims about the expansion. The opponents will have gained more followers because no one is reaching out to the community to remind them of all the positive things about LAX - like how many people depend on LAX for jobs, or the revenue brought to the region, or...or...
  2. The importance of the public relations profession.  The same City Council members complaining about this pending contract are hypocrites. They have used public relations to their advantage. They have their own communications staff, send out news releases, etc.  So, why is it NOT critical for Los Angeles International Airport to communicate and use proven, effective public relations strategies and tactics when these council members use the very same strategies and tactics on a daily basis for their own needs?  And don't get me started when election season rolls up - and how council members hire multiple agencies to communicate why they should be re-elected.
I understand this becomes an issue when a public relations contract is valued at $1 million or more. The red flags come up. (California's governor recently nixed a multi-million-dollar public relations and video contract for a major infrastructure project). However, these are long-term contracts.  A $1 million contract over four years is $250,000 a year - the annual full price of 2-3 full-time communications employees. What a PR agency brings for that price is the work product equivalent of 4-5 employees, plus a whole lot of experience and expertise that otherwise would cost $100,000 or more a year per person for a public agency to bring this level of PR pro in house.

A "PR effort" is not about lying or deceiving.  Those actions are clearly a violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics.  What PR is:
  • An important effort to get information to the public in a world jammed with information. 
  • It involves research to understand public sentiment, how people and groups want to receive information and how they want to be treated.   
  • PR involves significant expertise to lay out information in a way that gets the point across and substantiate the messages.  
  • PR involves setting up meetings - and knowing how to reach communities that otherwise have many other things on their minds.  
  • PR is about calling attention to important issues.  
Have I modified terminology with my public agency work to reflect "public outreach and education" so cities and public agencies don't risk criticism for hiring a PR agency?  Yes. Guilty as charged.  But, public outreach and education is just one facet of the public relations profession.

It's time we defend our profession. 

No comments: