Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Public Agencies and Public Relations

Should public agencies use public relations firms?

Recent publicity about a PR firm’s plans to promote the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies’ yellow call boxes (which aren’t used much anymore) would indicate the answer is no. The newly launched San Diego Watchdog column in the Union Tribune writes of the PR firm’s plan:

The marketing plan features a cookbook with on-the-go recipes. “Drivers are always concerned when traveling to parties about making dishes that will travel well in the car,” says the plan from [the PR firm].

It suggests Tupperware and Igloo ice chests with the call-box agency’s logo and a giveaway of a road trip, hotel stay and theme park visit.

For April Fool’s Day? “Have you pranked someone’s car before and have a photo of it? Show us! Only legal pranks please.”

The $130,000 marketing program is on the agenda Thursday for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies board, which has come under scrutiny in recent months for storing millions of dollars of reserves even as the number of calls into the system plummets.

Update:  Just after we posted this item, the PR agency, which had been working for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies since 2007, was canned.  Here’s the news item.

We confess at the outset we have little empathy for PR plans that require expensive give-aways like logo-adorned ice chests.  If you’re popping $20 or more for each decent ice chest you want to give away for free, how do you hope to get a positive return on investment?  Conversely, if you’re only proposing to spend $5 each for a cheap Styrofoam cooler that will fall apart the first time it’s used, how do you expect to communicate quality for your client’s brand?

But that’s not what bothers us the most about this proposal. It’s this: The client is dealing with criticism for charging too high a fee for a service that’s of too little use, and for holding too much in reserves.  How does this public relations proposal address the issues the client faces?  Simple: It throws gasoline on the flame with an expensive, out of touch program.

Consumer public relations firms, which often are overly driven by the need to be creative, are more likely to make a mistake like this than a public affairs firm like ours, because we are more attuned to public perception and more aware of downside risks.

Doing it Right

Please don’t get us wrong, though.  We believe public agencies are justified in using professional communicators.  In fact, because agencies typically deal with important civic functions (yellow call boxes notwithstanding) we think they frequently have an obligation to.

Issues are increasingly complex.  People are busier than ever and have less time to absorb information.  The channels of communication are both broader and more cluttered than ever.  This is not a safe place for amateurs.  Professional communicators, whether they be in-house or consultants, are increasingly necessary for effective communications.

More importantly, agencies need to listen.  As a strategic communications firm to several public agencies, we place the importance of incorporating “feedback mechanisms” into outgoing communications right below the need to make outreach programs goal-focused and measurable.  When incoming communications are a part of a campaign, they yield information that can be shared with the agency’s leadership, so they better understand the public’s perceptions, concerns and expectations.

A good communications consultant also will work hard to promote and ensure transparency.  A few years ago, we argued for our public agency clients to post board agendas and minutes, staff reports and budgets online for public viewing.  The practice is now the norm, and staff and board compensation information now also is available.

There’s one more thing, one very important thing.  Consultants who work for public agencies need to respect that they are being paid with public money – our money, as taxpayers.  That means we need to be careful to use it wisely, which gets us back to coolers with logos.  Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?

We didn’t think so.

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “Public Agencies and Public Relations”

  1. February 7th, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Advertising Agency says:

    Wow can’t believe that was the PR agency’s campaign was… no wonder they got canned shortly after your article. PR and Advertising Agencies need to realize that throwing money at an issue is never the best way to go about it. In fact and in many cases, the less a campaign costs the more creative and ingenious it truly is. Take YouTube for example. You can create a very witty and intelligent video that can go viral and reach thousands upon thousands of people while keeping it within a small budget. These agencies need more outside-the-box thinking so that they can show their clients off as innovative and leaders in their industy.

  2. April 15th, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Clarity Blog » Blog Archive » Mesa Water’s Excellent Rebranding Program says:

    [...] what I wrote in an earlier blog post on this sensitive subject:  Issues are increasingly complex.  People are busier than ever and [...]

Leave a Reply


7 + = 8