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March 15, 2012

PRSA Urges U.S. Senate to Avoid Restricting Government Use of Public Relations Firms

NEW YORK (March 15, 2012) —In an op-ed published today in Roll Call, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) urges Senator Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) and Senator Rob Portman (R–Ohio) to avoid actions that might diminish or severely restrict the United States government’s use of approved public relations and public affairs contractors. The Senators are leading an investigation of the federal government’s use of public relations and advertising contracts.
 
“We believe that all stakeholders in society — including governments themselves — must participate in vigorously communicating their goals, programs, objectives, and knowledge to the public at large,” PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, writes in Roll Call. “Whether educating the public about government services, providing information on public health and safety, explaining the tax code, attracting businesses to an economic enterprise zone, or any of dozens of other areas, governments have a clear role in communicating effectively and efficiently to the public.”
 
To accompany the published opinion piece, PRSA sent letters this week to Sens. McCaskill and Portman expressing its concerns with the investigation. Corbett states in those letters and the Roll Call op-ed that PRSA’s primary concern with the investigation is that “the Subcommittee is disregarding public relations’ central value to government: its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparent and honest communications between the Government and its citizens, and its role as an economic contributor to the economy of today and tomorrow.”
 
Corbett asks Sens. McCaskill and Portman to thoroughly consider the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs on behalf of the federal government, and to use discretion when attempting to characterize the federal government’s use of those services and related firms.
 
Corbett also says that “any investigation into the Government’s use of PR firms should not be undertaken unilaterally. It must be met by an equally robust examination of how the Government communicates with the public and how it can better utilize the many innovative PR firms and professionals throughout the U.S. to best reach and inform citizens.”
 
Sen. McCaskill chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, and Sen. Portman serves as its ranking member. It is one of five subcommittees within the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Full text of PRSA’s letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight is available below and for download.
 
Letter from PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard Corbett to Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight

Gerard F. Corbett
Chair and Chief Executive Officer
Public Relations Society of America
33 Maiden Lane, Floor 11
New York, NY 10038
 
March 13, 2011 
 
The Honorable Claire McCaskill
Hart Senate Office Building, Suite 506
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
 
Dear Senator McCaskill:
 
I am writing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to express our concerns regarding the ongoing investigation by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management into the federal government’s use of public relations and advertising services.
 
Principally, we are concerned that the Subcommittee is disregarding public relations’ central value to government: its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparent and honest communications between the Government and its citizens, and its role as an economic contributor to the economy of today and tomorrow.
 
Ethical Public Relations and Government
As the world’s leading member organization representing public relations and public affairs professionals, PRSA champions values for the public relations profession that are grounded in the principles of our nation’s Founding Fathers: the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential to contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society. The cornerstone of our efforts to advance the public relations profession is our Member Code of Ethics, which clearly states what constitutes ethical practices in the profession.
 
We invite members of the Subcommittee to review the enclosed PRSA Member Code of Ethics.
 
Within this framework, we believe that all stakeholders in society — including governments themselves — must participate in vigorously communicating their goals, programs, objectives, and knowledge to the public at large. Our organization has in recent years recognized and celebrated communications work done at various levels of government. In 2011, the United States Army, working in conjunction with the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, received a Silver Anvil Award from PRSA for its campaign, “Connecting Army and America.” This initiative helped create a deeper understanding of the value of Army service, create opportunities to engage Soldiers with Americans and build trust between the Army and the public through online community engagement.
 
Whether educating the public about government services, providing information on public health and safety, explaining the tax code, attracting business to an economic enterprise zone, or any of dozens of other areas, governments have a clear role in communicating effectively and efficiently to the public. 

The Value of Public Relations to the U.S. Government
We believe there is significant value to be derived from the federal government using public relations firms to work directly with the public to help restore trust in America’s political system and its elected leaders. We know that members of Congress agree, using public relations to support their campaigns and to remain in constant contact with their constituents. 
 
Whether communicating where disaster relief can be found, advising constituents about the latest trade policy development, or helping to dispel unfounded rumors, elected officials and governments at all levels rely upon public relations to provide information and build trust.
 
Trust in America’s elected leaders and its government is at a perilous juncture. As the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates, a majority of Americans distrust government and their elected leaders. Trust begins with good communications, and public relations is vital to that end.
 
Cost Effectiveness of Outsourcing
The concerns that you and Sen. Portman have raised regarding the need for prudent spending by the federal government is one shared by all Americans, especially during these challenging economic times. In fact, all organizations can, at times, find it advantageous to contract out certain services, including public affairs- and public relations-related work.
 
As recent economically-focused debates across America have pointedly shown, there are, at times, wage differentials between private- and public-sector employees that can make it cost effective to outsource work to save American taxpayers money. Other reasons to contract such work include access to expertise not available in-house, or to multiply the impact of an in-house work force without taking on permanent employees and their associated costs.
 
Public Relations and Job Creation
While outsourcing public relations can be more cost efficient, public relations today is also about growing the U.S. economy at a time when jobs are needed all across America. U.S. News & World Report ranked “PR Specialist” as one of the top-50 careers in 2011, noting that the field will add 66,000 jobs to the U.S. economy by 2018. The U.S. Government, in fulfilling its mandate, is estimated to spend $1.3 billion on advertising and public relations services, and is an important driver for this economic engine.
 
Within this context, PRSA respectfully asks that members of your Subcommittee consider the following points, which we feel are relevant specifically to your investigation and, more broadly, to the federal government’s use of public-relations and public-affairs services:
 
Regarding the Federal Government’s Use of Public Relations Services
  • Public relations advances the free flow of accurate and truthful information; open and transparent communication fosters credibility and trust in global institutions.
  • Public relations serves the public interest by providing the context, clarity and information necessary to aid informed debate and decision-making in a democratic society.
  • Public relations helps to build mutual understanding among a wide array of global institutions and audiences.
  • Public relations professionals have a special obligation to practice their craft ethically, with the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public. The PRSA Code of Ethics provides a practical set of standards to follow.
  • Public relations serves the public good by changing attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, from breast cancer awareness to drinking and driving to smoking and obesity. The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes and provided pro-bono services for institutions that needed public relations assistance but could not afford it.
Finally, I also would respectfully request that members of the Subcommittee use discretion when attempting to characterize the federal government’s use of public-affairs and public-relations contractors. Pejorative statements such as “taxpayer-funded spin” and “hiring someone to help [the government] ‘spin’,” are speculative misnomers that debase the important work being performed by approved federal contractors working on behalf of the American people, whose main goal is to keep the public informed on relevant issues. Elected officials and federal workers are no strangers to having inappropriate language used to describe their work, and I would hope that as a result, the Subcommittee will be mindful of this concern.
 
On behalf of PRSA’s 32,000 professional and student members and the broader public relations profession, I ask that members of your Subcommittee give further consideration to the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs professionals around the world.
 
Sincerely,
 
Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA
Chair and Chief Executive Officer
Public Relations Society of America
 
About the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
With more than 31,000 members, PRSA is the largest organization of public relations professionals and students. PRSA is comprised of 111 local Chapters organized into 10 geographic Districts; 16 Professional Interest Sections that focus on issues, trends and research relevant to specialized practice areas, such as technology, health care, financial communications, entertainment and sports, and travel tourism; and the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), which has more than 300 Chapters at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. PRSA is headquartered in New York.

 
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