McCormick Group Principal Ivan Adler speaks to The Hill about government spending on public relations firms.
By Megan R. Wilson | December 8, 2015
The federal government has spent almost $4 billion on public relations services since 2007, according to a watchdog group, with more than half of the money going to the world’s largest firms.
A review conducted by Open the Books found that there are now 3,092 public affairs professionals working in the government, an increase of 15 percent — or about 400 people — over the past seven years.
During that time, 139 federal agencies inked $2.02 billion in outside contracts with firms that perform public relations, polling, research and marketing consulting.
“We always applaud agencies who make information available,” Open the Books said in its report. “But … agencies are not charged with making that information interesting or newsworthy. Agencies certainly aren’t charged with using taxpayer funds to engage in thinly-veiled propaganda campaigns that are primarily designed to protect their budgets and hype outcomes.”
The $2 billion tally calculated by the watchdog group includes millions of dollars on international polling for the State Department and $57.7 million in marketing and advertising contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to promote the National Flood Insurance Program.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has come under fire for long patient wait times, awarded $5.3 million in contracts to survey “veteran enrollees health and reliance on VA” between 2011 and 2014, the report found. The VA also awarded Gallup $1.7 million in contracts to measure the engagement and satisfaction of agency employees.
A VA spokeswoman said that it is obligated by law to inform veterans and their families about the benefits and services for which they are entitled.
“We are committed to improving both the veteran and customer experience through real and meaningful change,” the agency spokeswoman said in an email.
To calculate the number of federal employees working in public affairs, Open the Books counted anyone on the executive branch payroll with a title “public affairs officer,” excluding press secretaries and communications directors.
The earnings of public affairs officers cost taxpayers $2.34 billion between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2014, according to the report. In 2014, about 60 percent of these officials had base salaries of more than $100,000, and nearly 19 percent earned more than $125,000 before bonuses.
Public affairs officers can earn several different types of additional compensation. Performance bonuses are the only ones made public, and totaled $10.9 million from 2007 to 2014.
A board member of the National Association of Government Communicators defended the public relations officers, saying they carry out crucial duties under difficult circumstances.
“The vast majority of communication shops within government are understaffed and under-resourced for the volume and type of work asked of the government communication professionals working within, particularly when contrasted to corporate communication offices or public relations firms,” said Chris O’Neil, an official at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs.
“The responsibility for transparency and accountability is paramount. That responsibility is met through timely, accurate and effective communication, executed by government communicators on behalf of their agencies,” he added.
Although the report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics putting the average annual “public relations specialist” salary at $55,680, some experts say that federal salaries need to be higher in order to attract top talent.
“That is not the average salary in a place like Washington and New York,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm. “A fair comparison would be to organizations of similar size and, more accurately, of like complexity of issues.”
Adler said that someone with a government employee’s knowledge of the intricate issues handled by federal regulators could triple their salary by going to the private sector. Illustrating the point: Six out of the 10 top-paid public affairs officers in the government work at financial services agencies.
Despite thousands working to shape government public relations efforts, shops in the private sector — including FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy Public Relations and Young & Rubicam — reap billions from federal contracts