The US government’s advertising budget has come under scrutiny recently. While rough numbers can be extrapolated, it is difficult to determine how much is actually being spent on PR. Excessive government spending has always been a concern, and as the U.S. recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression, ways to cut back Federal and State spending are increasingly interesting to the public. However, to know how much can be cut back, a clearer understanding of what is spent and why must be determined.
Why does the Government need PR?
For some, the idea of the government hiring PR firms brings to mind the word “propaganda”. While it is true some government PR campaigns promote controversial issues, most media campaigns are less about spin and more about the obligations of bureaucracy. For instance, after World War II, California conducted a long and involved campaign to attract new residents. Other advertising campaigns encouraged citizens to buy war bonds, and still others warned the populace on how to avoid setting forest fires, or the importance of not littering.
Additionally, it is the government’s job to keep its citizens informed about current efforts on their behalf. Whether it be a letter campaign, emails, or commercials when a new law goes into effect, the public needs to be made aware. Commercials and billboards warn against drunk driving or point out that buckling up is the law are also a part of these messages.
As someone on the Hoover Commission task force pointed out, “Apart from his responsibility as spokesman, the department head has another obligation in a democracy: to keep the public informed about the activities of his agency. How far to go and what media to use in this effort present touchy issues of personal and administrative integrity. But of the basic obligation [to inform the public] there can be little doubt.”
How much does the government spend on PR?
According to a study conducted last year by the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government spent about $4.4 billion on contracts for “advertising services”. This broad turn can mean anything from printing out brochures to hiring high-end PR firms, and last year alone expenditures totaled $892.5 million. However, these numbers are at best an estimate.
To understand why these numbers are not precise, it is important to note that amongst the government’s many agencies, there is no single agreed upon definition of advertising. Moreover, there is no central reporting agency overseeing these expenses. With no clear understanding what advertising is, and no one to report these undefined expenses to, agencies determine their advertising budgets internally, and often categorize them differently. This makes gaining a precise understanding of what is being spent and why extremely difficult.
As this study indicates, “budgeting of these costs varies by agency. For example, military recruiting advertising is budgeted under Operations and Maintenance for each of the military departments, and Energy Research and Development Administration recruiting is budgeted under Program Direction, Program Support. Energy Research and Development Administration public information is budgeted under … Program Support.” This poses a significant obstacle to effectively defining advertising, and thus advertising expenses, and it becomes clearer upon examining certain hypotheticals.
For example, an agency hires a PR firm to craft a PSA informing citizens about evacuation routes in the event of a national disaster, and services offered through the agency. The announcement is run on radio and television stations at no cost to the agency, and the agency’s head delivers public speeches on the subject in the locations it airs.
- Does this count as advertising? Or is it a public notification, or is it public education?
- How should the agency account for the time of the government employee and resources related to this PSA?
- Should a return on the investment be considered, should additional funds be allocated for tracking the effectiveness of the PSA, and what, if any, costs should be absorbed by the PR firm itself?
Multiply these questions across a literally unknown number of government agencies, and it becomes clearer just how muddled advertising accounting really is.
What are the limits of government spending for PR?
In spite of the difficulties in determining what is actually being spent on PR by the government, there are hard limits. While agencies can essentially spend what they want without fear of oversight, there are laws in place preventing certain types of expenditures.
One such limitation is on the Department of Defense. While some might argue in spite of the restrictions, the Department of Defense cannot use funds to pay a defense contractor for advertising. This means no matter what is spent, there is no sneaking extra funds to defense contractors via an unspecified advertising line-item looked at by no one.
And as this article explains, “The government can’t advertise certain agricultural products. Treasury appropriations laws have contained prohibitions on the use of funds for “publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress,” the report said. Also, agencies can’t use government money to pay for advertising to lobby Congress. It’s unclear how vigorously these limits on government advertising are enforced.”
Some examples of Government spending on PR
With all that laid out, the question remains who is spending the most money on PR? The biggest spender was the department with the biggest budget, the Defense Department, spending $419 million in 2013. The Department of Health and Human Services was second, but by a wide margin, spending roughly half of what the Defense Department spent ($197.4 million).
Again, halving the budget of even HHS, the Education Department spent $128.8 million on PR. And finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Transportation Department combined still spent less than the Education Department, at $61.8 and $43 million respectively.
There have been any number of controversies surrounding PR campaigns run by various government agencies as well.
As recently as last September, a PR firm called Edelman sent emails out to several reporters, ostensibly on behalf of an unnamed federal agency that wanted insights on helping “refine their agency messaging.”
One of the email recipients was an editor of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly editor named Alison Knopf. After initially ignoring the strange inquiry, she responded, asking for some sort of authentication of the Agency’s source.
The then-anonymous Edelman PR emails continued; “Our clients are national government [sic] agencies within the health industry…We are hoping to gain insight into how our messages are being received by journalists.”
After calling the supposed-PR professional out on his or her clientele’s redundant title, Knopf discovered through a few sources at the Health and Human Services Department who the mysterious PR solicitations was none other than the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).
Knopf commented that “It struck me as a really odd way to approach reporters…I think it’s crazy… Anybody who has covered the federal health agencies for a long time, this has been a very difficult administration in terms of transparency.”
Later, a SAMSHA spokesman named Brad Stone admitted that the federal agency was using Edelman in hopes to improve its PR.
“The Edelman effort is information-gathering in nature, and designed to provide SAMSHA with an enhanced understanding of how it could better meet the interests and needs of the behavioral healthcare community,” explained Stone via email.
It’s not so unusual for federal agencies to spend taxpayer money on external, probably private PR organizations to assist an organization’s public outreach. But, it’s another thing entirely for SAMSHA to request $16 million in taxpayer money and not help those suffering from substance abuse or mental health illnesses, but to practice throwing curve balls with reporters, all without the public’s consent.
What’s worse, these unofficial email solicitations asked reporters to “keep the conversation confidential” and to not “report on anything discussed in the interview,” in exchange for a $175 donation to charity on obfuscating reporters’ behalf.
For reporters, a company or organization can build trust in their legitimacy by simply being transparent and providing all relevant information and resources, instead of trying to change the rules of journalism. And we should remember there are plenty of ways to advertise an organization outside of the purview of reporters. A good PR professional understands that at its core, public relations is synonymous with advertising. A government organization like SAMSHA could have started better by printing pamphlets (e.g., on the dangers of drunk driving, or a new athletic club, etc).
However, SAMSHA’s backfire demonstrates a simple truth PR professionals must face: You can only face reporters once; there is no exhibition lap. If you have faith in the bribe, but you can also be certain the bribe will lose its charm and effect over time.
PSA’s which warn against the dangers of using marijuana have been criticized for being overly expensive, wasteful, and misleading. The War on Drugs itself was a $775 million advertising campaign, and in light of the current trend of legislative changes, those critics were right.
Campaigns promoting the use of social service programs have also come under fire from critics. However, not all campaigns have been met with controversy. Advertisements for Federal job openings, the sale of surplus government property, and even competitions for Federal job openings are all eagerly sought.
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