Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger.org’s political columnist.
The Green Mountain Care Board made a terrible public relations error this week. It sought help from a public relations firm.
Public agencies should never – well, almost never – hire a public relations firm. It’s very bad public relations.
Whether private businesses should hire public relations firms is a separate and more complicated subject. Wisely or not, the public holds for-profit companies to a different standard.
Not necessarily a lower standard. Just different. After all, the purpose of a for-profit company is…(cue the trumpets here)…profit. So most people – quite accurately — look on corporate public relations as just another form of advertising.
And who expects advertising to be accurate, or even honest? Its purpose is to sell, not to inform. Similarly, the purpose of a business’s public relations firm is not to inform but to enhance or protect the business’s image. So the vast majority of people know exactly how to respond to corporate PR blather: by ignoring it.
(Whether this means that the entire public relations business is a waste of time and money and that companies would be better off using those resources elsewhere is beyond the scope of this exercise. But it is possible).
Public agencies, to be sure, are not held in much (any?) higher regard than most for-profit companies. But people understand that even if the agency head may not be telling the whole truth, it is the agency head him/her-self who is not telling the whole truth, not an outside firm which the agency hired specifically for the purpose of not telling the whole truth.
The very act of hiring that outside firm, then, only diminishes the public’s confidence in the agency’s reliability.
It is true that most public agencies employ at least one public relations staff member, who is usually given the official title of “communications director” or “media relations specialist” or some such.
The more accurate title is “flack.”
The flack performs one useful task. He or she fields calls from reporters so the agency employees who do the agency’s actual work have time to do the agency’s actual work. The flack also “spins,” meaning he or she describes the agency’s performance so that the agency appears competent and upright, or at least so that its incompetence and chicanery are shrouded in as much irrelevant verbiage as possible.
But this is not the public’s problem. Flacks do not spin the public. They only spin the reporters, who, if they are any good, will repulse the spinning and find out what is really happening.
Vermont has a current example of one of the few instances in which it was at last defensible for a public agency to hire a public relations firm. The “agency” in this case, was the entire town of Waterbury, which engaged three Vermont firms to help it hold on to as many of the state workers whose offices were flooded by Tropical Storm Irene.
The town’s image did take a small hit when it announced it was hiring the firms. But at least as Municipal Manager Bill Shepeluk described it, the firms did not roll out an elaborate PR treatment complete with glossy booklets and an elaborate media strategy. One of them, he said, merely provided the town with information. The others arranged a press conferences and gave reporters a heads-up and some phone numbers.
Whether any of this helped the town is open to question. But so far, Shepeluk said, Waterbury has paid the firms only $6,200, and perhaps will spend that much again before their work is done.
By comparison, what the Green Mountain Care Board plans is far more complicated and convoluted. It has announced a 19-page RFP (“Request for Proposal,” for those who do not speak bureaucratese), seeking sealed bids for a PR campaign which will “build awareness of the Board and its role…build public confidence in our process and decisions…(and)… develop and communicate a GMCB identity distinct from the State.”
Download a copy of the RFP GMCB public relations firm RFP
In other words, the full flack roll-out, at a cost of $50,000.
“When we passed (the health care act) I didn’t realize we were creating a ministry of propaganda within health care,” said State Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans.
OK, Brock is the Republican who is going to run against Gov. Peter Shumlin this year, so is hardly an objective observer. But his assessment is hard to dismiss outright, and is likely to be accepted by lots of folks, the folks the Board is trying to inform about its activities.
The irony here is that the Board could use some help communicating. It is a temporary organization with one specific task – to figure out how to lower the cost of health care. “Lower,” in this case does not mean actually make health care cheaper than it is now, but to “bend the cost curve,” making health care cheaper than it will become if left alone.
It’s a complicated matter, something about which the public should be informed, and the Board members are technicians and regulatory experts who “don’t really have communications skills,” in the words of Board Chair Anya Rader Wallack (via WCAX-TV Channel 3 news).
So the Board could use someone – as in one person, not a whole firm – who has communications skills, enough communications skills that he or she would never utter the words “communications skills.”
(Before proceeding, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: your humble agent who is making this proposal is not, as in not, as in Capital Enn Oh Tea, interested in the job.)
But this person, call him or her a “flack” if you will, ought neither to spin nor to thump the tub. The Board needs neither of those functions performed. This flack ought to be an explainer, in effect a translator, turning the technical, medical-financial gobbledygook which of necessity must dominate the Board’s proceedings into plain, everyday English.
Like any good flack, this one could help the agency be more transparent. By all indications, the Board wants to be transparent. Just look at its “work plan” of the meeting in which it proposed its PR RFP. One of its goals, it said, is to “present (its) methodology to the Legislature.” Another is to “assure consistency and clarity” in its dealings with other state agencies.
But the people in those agencies and at least some of the legislators are wonkish enough to understand the medical-financial gobbledygook. The general public is not. Hence the advantage of an honest, capable, flack.
Whose first advice to the Board would no doubt be: Don’t hire a PR firm.