Scrutinizing Community Outreach

A recent LA Times Blog:

Councilmen question $3.8-million LAX public relations contracts

The story focuses on spending by LAX, one of the world’s largest airports, on what airport officials describe as a “public education program” around ongoing construction projects. The LA Councilman criticized the spending because of an alleged lack of transparency in awarding the contracts.

But if you read the story you’ll discover it isn’t really about transparency. It’s about local government spending tax dollars on “public relations contracts.” These kinds of contracts regularly generate news coverage, in my humble opinion, because the news media doesn’t like the idea of public agencies spending tax dollars on strategies designed to go around them. The hiring of PR and other communications professionals by public agencies is generally portrayed as either wasteful (why can’t staff do this work?) or as an attempt by the agency to hide something.

I used to be one of those reporters that loved this kind of story. PR people are easy targets: Spinmeisters, BS Artists, Damage Control Experts — there are other more derogatory terms we used. But in the 12 years I’ve been gone from news and spent doing this kind of work, my perspective, needless to say, has changed considerably.

I’m not naive. There are public agencies who waste lots of money on communications contracts — but not for the reasons you or many reporters probably entertain. And there’s no doubt some public officials reach out to “crisis communications” experts to cover up their crap. But I’ve come to believe that these contracts should to be used to make investments in public awareness…and more importantly, public engagement.

How can we expect our city’s residents, who are not only voters but also consumers of city services, to know what our local governments are doing? More importantly, how else can these government consumers — of garbage services, utilities, libraries, public safety, airports, buses, etc. — learn how to access the services their tax dollars are used for? That’s what these contract should be and in many cases are used for.

In the case of LAX, as a fairly frequent traveler, I want to know if there are terminals closed, parking lots changed, or any other issues that will help me maneuver my way through what is generally a stressful environment. LAX needs to find ways to get that information out. Add to that challenge our tendency to ignore most public information messages, so any awareness campaign needs to be designed and packaged in a way that’s engaging and interesting. That takes professionals and professionals cost money. With all due respect to most local government communications staff — that’s not their strength.

This isn’t a “PR” issue or a “spin campaign” — it’s public service. It isn’t about hiring an agency to organize news conferences or write press releases. It’s investing in innovative and creative communications strategies that we’ll pay attention to. As LAX’s Director of Media and PR explained:

“While we are building the airport the public is asking for, it will be complicated to navigate LAX over the next several years. Why wouldn’t we tell them 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?”

While I recognize the attempt to put in a couple of “key messages” about LAX and its job creation efforts, I also appreciate the attempt to help me navigate a very large and complicated airport. Public dollars being spent to help us — what a concept.

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