Local government and groups spend public funds on public relations

Local government and groups spend public funds on public relations

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by Nishi Gupta
Idaho's NewsChannel 7

KTVB.COM

Posted on October 31, 2010 at 10:51 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 6 at 11:46 AM

BOISE -- Government contracts are lucrative for public relations firms, bringing in thousands of dollars - your dollars.

At publicly funded agencies large and small, PR firms cash in on all kinds of assignments.  

For example: last February the Boise Centre celebrated its 20th anniversary with a bash called Cake Break.

It's the job of a PR firm to make sure people show up, especially VIPs.

The tab: just under $9,000.

"We have traditionally outsourced our marketing efforts to other agencies, we don't have marketing experience internal, we believe that we need to capture creative expertise externally," said District Board Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Astorquia.

Creative expertise was not the reason the centre's parent organization spent another $22,000.

The Greater Boise Auditorium District used the PR firm for general support during a very public battle with the local visitors bureau.

In the same meeting that a board member said they have to be accountable for the public’s money, they paid a PR firm $700 to be there.

Since opening in 2008, the College of Western Idaho has spent more than $130,000 on PR firms.

Records obtained by NewsChannel 7 show the state-funded school paid consultants to draft job announcements and interview candidates.

They continued to write news releases even after a full-time communications director was hired in 2009. Her salary? $60,000.

"We were spending less than 3% of the money we had in public relations and marketing. We are down to less than half a percent now. I think that that's easily justifiable. You can say when we started up we had to have a certain amount of money in place to make sure the message got out," said College of Western Idaho President Dr. Bert Glandon.

Two years ago, the State Treasurer's Office decided it wanted to tell people what it does for them.

That decision cost taxpayers $20,000 and what the PR firm did exactly we don't know. According to the treasurer's office, it doesn't  have detailed records of the work.

Last year, Boise paid nearly $100,000 to roll out its improved recycling program.

User fees that typically go back into public works projects went to a PR campaign that bought a logo, brochures, t-shirts and buttons.

"I think the proof is in the pudding. If you look at the results, we have doubled our amount of recycling in one year. None of the other communities and most of them have followed suit with us have seen those results yet," said Vince Trimboli of Boise's Public Works Department.

In an outreach effort for a proposed streetcar in Boise, $90,000 paid for a communication plan that only outlined the positive aspects of the streetcar, not the negative.

The urban renewal agency insists the process was balanced.

"I'm pretty satisfied with how we did it and certainly what we found out. I think the process worked because I think the communication back to the city was duly informed by what we heard from the public," said Phil Kushlan of Capital City Development Corporation.

The director of the state historical society says $50,000 of PR was a worthy expense over the last few years.

At a time of limited state funding, consultants marketed events that could lead to more visitors and more revenue.

Two years ago, consultants agreed to spread Meridian's story for $30,000.

City leaders justify the expense.

"A public information officer, if they had a salary plus the full time package of benefits, you're spending about $60,000. In this case for year and a half, we spent 30,000. So there's a 30,000 savings right there," said Meridian councilman Brad Hoaglun. 

In a three-year span, the eight publicly funded groups in this investigation spent more than a half a million dollars on PR firms.

And this is just a small, random sample of how often PR firms are behind government messages.

As we took a closer look at what PR consultants did for Meridian, we noticed the city was charged for several hours of "crisis communications support."

It looks like taxpayers picked up the bill for Mayor Tammy de Weerd's personal problems at the time.

"When I saw that, I went ‘Oh. I can truly see why you're looking at', going, ‘Wait a minute, did the city spend money for that sort of thing?’ That does make it difficult, it's a legitimate question," said Meridian councilman Brad Hoaglun.

It's a question the council and Mayor didn't know the answer to until we started asking.

We’ll have more on that story Monday night.
 

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