Political challenges to PR spending ask the wrong questions

Posted on January 24, 2013 10:13 am by | Politics | PR

You know we’re sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn’t it?

LAXThese words were uttered by Steve Buscemi’s character in the sci-fi flick, “Armageddon,” as the crew blasted off in a space shuttle in an effort to save humanity from an asteriod hurling through space on a collision course with Earth. The quote surfaced out of the distant recesses of my mind (the movie wasn’t very good, after all) when I read a PRWeek piece about Los Angeles City Councilmen Dennis Zine and Bill Rosendahl questioning $3.8 million in PR contracts awarded by Los Angeles International Airport.

The pair of politicians—who are in a position to vote down the contracts—asked if the contracts were awarded after a competitive and transparent bidding process.

As if the lowest bid will always produce the best results. There’s nothing wrong with asking the question. The contracts will be paid with tax dollars and the rules call for competitive bids. But when determining whether the contracts will be money well spent, asking about bid rules is asking the wrong question. Or, at least, it’s asking a good question in the wrong order.

The LAX airport commission awarded three contracts. At a cost of $1.6 million, the Phelps Group will ensure the public and stakeholder groups are informed about modernization, infrastructure and facility upgrade projects. AdEase will spend $1.5 on media buys. Nothing Films will provide video production services for nearly $700,000.

The first question Zine and Rosendahl should have asked: Why do we need to engage in these communication projects?

According to Mary Grady, managing director for Media and PR at Los Angeles World Airports, the public has been vocal in recent years in its demands for improvements to LAX. In addition to keeping the public updated on progress to meeting those demands, the airport will also let people know about the ancillary benefits of the improvements. “Why wouldn’t we tell (the public) all about the more than 25 capital improvement projects that are creating tens of thousands of jobs, without using any taxpayer dollars from the city’s general fund?” Grady asked.

Next question: What are the goals, strategies and objectives for the work? As a city councilman tasked with safeguarding the public’s funds, it would be important to know that the work will actually produce measurable results that are important to the airport, the city, and the public.

Then, Zine and Rosendahl should have asked, How will the money be spent? A review of the actual fees proposed by the agencies in their bids would be more revealing than figuring out if using a lower bidder would have saved a few percent of the total cost. What are the hard-dollar expenses involved? Are they consistent with the Key Performance Indicators established for the project? Did the agencies seek out the best prices for high-quality work from their providers? Are the hourly rates being charged competitive?

With satisfactory answers to those questions, the councilman can wonder, Why do we need outside help for this? Don’t we have our own department for media and communications? Many organizations maintain a minimal communications staff, paying outside agencies for work for which they are specifically qualified. That makes more sense than maintaining a large staff that needs to stay busy to justify their continued employment while communication needs frequently require skills and competencies the staff doesn’t necessarily have. Grady said her staff doesn’t have the chops for media buying or video production, which is neither surprising or unreasonable. Without outside help, the campaign would be “far more limited,” she said, which means it would far less effective at meeting the goals.

Finally, it would not be unreasonable to ask: What other agencies were included in the bidding process, and why Phelps was selected over any that submitted lower bids? State documents indicate that “Phelps clearly demonstrated experience managing similar multiple-year public education communication services, developing comprehensive strategic plans to drive awareness, conducting marketing research, and implementing marketing plans.” As a councilman, I’d want to know more. Did they produce a better plan that competing proposals? Are the outcomes better?

It’s sad that politicians like Zine and Rosendahl feel they can score political points by simply challenging the bidding process while never considering the return on the airport’s PR investment and whether that actually produces a measurable benefit for all stakeholders involved. In our politically charged environment, organizational PR managers need to focus on these outcomes when submitting proposals if they’re going to short-circuit wrong-minded challenges like those Zine and Rosendahl have made.

 

Comments

  • 1.Shel,this is a subject that is close to my heart as I've both been an elected councillor and run a consultancy working on public sector contracts. It's the same the world over that it is easy for politicians to score political points by attacking spend on PR. It's our reputation problem, The public know PR is bad because the media constantly tell them it is. That means the politician can score an easy win by attacking it. The problem with your questions is that they are good. I suspect the real reason behind the actual question was to score political points, actually achieving an improvement in policy might or might not happen, but it doesn't matter either way.

    A typical scenario that I've seen in city council elections in the UK, Europe and USA is that the opposition party campaigns on a manifesto that says we'll cut the money wasted on PR. The controlling party defends the status quo. The opposition wins and cuts PR spend. Once in office they realise they've got to invest on a particular PR project and the spend gradually creeps back up. The two parties then both end up arguing for exactly the opposite they were arguing for before. And the process repeats itself.

    Stuart Bruce | January 2013 | UK

  • 2.Interesting. Perhaps spending on PR contracts remains particularly odious to LA elected officials because of the Fleishman Hillard / LAWPD incident in 2004. Remember? After the forensic audits and court action, FH apologized for and repaid more than $4 M in fraudulent overbilling. Three ex employees were convicted and jailed.
    As a result LA city government approved rules stating city departments could no longer hire outside PR counsel.
    I am not sure they are asking the right questions, but the councillor s should be asking questions.

    Allison | January 2013 | Calgary, Canada

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