Following an instance this year where the General Services Administration contracted a public relations firm to manage negative publicity at the federal office complex in Kansas City, over a long-standing pollution problem and its potential health fallout, Senator Claire McCaskill announced an investigation into how federal agencies had used taxpayer money to pay for public relations services.
McCaskill’s spokeswoman Maria Speiser said the senator was “quite surprised” when finding out GSA signed a $234,000 “emergency communications plan” with Kansas City-based Jane Mobley Associates to manage the Bannister Federal Complex PR crisis. According to the Senator’s office, federal agencies spent a total of $1.3 billion on advertising and public relations contracts lin 2009.
“When used appropriately, public relations contracts may help federal agencies educate the public about health risks, emergency planning or similar topics,” the senator wrote in a letter this month to GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson and Daniel I. Gordon, chief of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. She also pointed out that “publicity experts” cannot engage in “publicity and propaganda” unless authorized by Congress.
Senator McCaskill who is also chairwoman of a Senate panel that oversees government contracts requested detailed explanations of the government’s use of outside “publicity experts.”
“I am concerned whether spending money on these services is in the best interests of the taxpayer,” she wrote.
GSA spokeswoman Angela Brees argues the situation they had face in Kansas City was a unique one.The “legacy contamination” at the 68-year-old Bannister building was of public concern and as the agency had no regional administrator at the time and also understaffed, they had to turn to a private firm.
“We needed someone to guide the philosophy because we didn’t have the necessary resources,” she explained.
According to contract details made public by Senator McCaskill, Jane Mobley Associates developed a communications plan to help the GSA explain the technical and scientific nature of the environmental conditions at the complex. The private consultant’s job was to bring “neutral third party expertise” to help the government address the concerns, in part by “anticipating possible media coverage” and “developing messages” for the media, public officials and occupants of the building.