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February 28, 2011

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

PRSA Submits Letter to Senate Subcommittee; Advocates Value of Public Relations
NEW YORK (Feb. 28, 2011) — The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) today urged the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight to avoid actions that would diminish or severely restrict the U.S. government’s use of approved public relations and public affairs. The subcommittee is scheduled to convene a hearing March 1, 2011, to investigate the General Services Administration’s (GSA) use of public relations firms, specifically a 2010 contract with Kansas City, Mo.-based Jane Mobley Associates Inc.

In a letter to Margaret Daum, staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, chair and CEO of PRSA, asked members of the subcommittee 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.

“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,” Fiske stated in the letter. “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.”

Fiske also stated in the letter that published “pejorative statements [from members of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight], such as ‘spending money to minimize bad publicity’ and ‘hiring someone to help [the government] spin,’ are speculative misnomers that debase the important work being performed by approved federal contractors working on GSA-authorized contracts, whose main goal is to help inform the public of relevant issues.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) chairs the subcommittee, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) 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.
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Letter from PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske, APR, to United States
Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight


February 28, 2011
 
Ms. Margaret Daum
Staff Director
United States Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
340 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
 
Dear Ms. Daum:
 
Thank you for speaking with a member of my staff recently regarding the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight’s March 1, 2011, hearing, “Examination of Public Relations Contracts at the General Services Administration’s Heartland Region.”
 
As the world’s leading member organization representing public relations and communications professionals, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) champions values for the public relations profession that are grounded in one of our nation’s core principles: 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 attached 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 publics at large. In fact, our organization has in recent years recognized and celebrated communications and public affairs work done at various levels of government. In 2010, the U.S. Air Force received PRSA’s “Best of Silver Anvil Award” — the highest recognition we bestow for such work — in recognition of its excellence in strategic, compassionate public affairs concerning media access to “dignified transfers” of fallen U.S. servicemen and women. 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. 
 
The subcommittee’s concern 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 to be beneficial to contract out certain services, including public-affairs- and public-relations-related work. Members of the GSA’s own staff seem to agree. According to published interviews with The Kansas City Star and The Washington Post, GSA spokeswoman Angela Brees said that the Kansas City GSA Regional Office turned to a private firm (Jane Mobley Associates) because it was “short-staffed” and “needed someone to guide the philosophy [for properly informing the public] because [the Office] didn’t have the necessary resources” to assist in its public-information effort, and the Environmental Protection Agency was unable to help. 
 
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.
 
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 services2, and is an important driver for this economic engine.
 
Within this context, PRSA respectfully asks that the subcommittee consider the following points, which we feel are relevant specifically to the subcommittee’s work 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.
Regarding the Contract with Jane Mobley Associates
  • Was the GSA-approved contract with Jane Mobley Associates clear in its scope, expectations of work to be performed and contractual obligations?
  • Was the contract let under normal practices?
  • Were the objectives of the program clearly understood by both the agency and the General Services Administration (GSA)?
  • In pursuing its objectives, did the firm follow high standards of professional and ethical conduct?
  • Did the firm satisfy its obligations under the terms of the contract?
Finally, I also would respectfully request that the subcommittee use discretion when attempting to characterize the federal government’s use of public-affairs and public-relations contractors. Pejorative statements, such as “spending money to minimize bad publicity” and “hiring someone to help [the government] ‘spin’,” are speculative misnomers that debase the important work being performed by approved federal contractors working on GSA-authorized contracts, whose main goal is to help inform the public of 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 would 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 the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight give further consideration to the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs professionals around the world, and by extension, by Jane Mobley Associates.
 
Sincerely,
 
Rosanna M. Fiske, APR
Chair and Chief Executive Officer
Public Relations Society of America
33 Maiden Lane, 11th Fl.
New York, NY 10038

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 112 local Chapters organized into 10 geographic Districts; 12 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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