Margolis: When any PR is bad PR

Anya Rader Wallack speaking to reporters on Tuesday. VTD/Josh Larkin

Anya Rader Wallack speaking to reporters on Tuesday. VTD/Josh Larkin

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is’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.

Big mistake.

“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.

Jon Margolis

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  • Dylan Giambatista

    I suppose this means the campaign season has begun?

  • Tom Licata

    All should keep the following passage in mind, maybe even copy and paste it on a nearby wall and reference it when our long and torturous road to health care’s perdition is complete, as it will prove to be prescient:

    “Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?”, said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against—then you’ll know that this is not the age of beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

    – From Atlas Shrugged

  • Wendy Wilton

    Kudos to Jon Margolis and VT Digger for covering this misstep of the Green Mountain Care Board. It appears the need for PR is based on damage control, rather than consumer education. Vermonters want answers, not BS.

    It seems odd that the Board is seeking to hire a PR firm when there’s really nothing to promote. The system is not yet designed: the benefit and delivery plan is not established, reimbursment rates are not defined, covered procedures have not been identified, and the financing plan is, well, either unknown or a well-kept secret.

  • Patricia Crocker
    • Doug Hoffer

      “The public has told them in no uncertain terms that we do not support this and it should never have been passed by our legislature.”

      Really? I guess you missed that thing in November 2010. You know, the election. It was in all the papers.

      • Craig Powers

        I think you may have forgotten to read the paper that day when it showed that the election was won w/ a very slim margin. What does that mean…it means not everyone wants to have five people determine their healthcare when we are ok with what we already have nor do we want to pay to support another entitlement program that will eventually run out of money and dumb down a great system of healthcare. The smugness of the left needs to stop and all sides need to be heard.

        • Doug Hoffer

          And those margins in the legislature? What do they tell you?

          FYI – Five people are not going to “determine” your health care. They will make some recommendations to the legislature which may or may not adopt some or all of them. The misleading information and scare tactics of the Right must stop.

  • George Cross

    There is nothing new about having a communications director, public relations consultant, or director of media services in Vermont state government. As I recall, the previous administration created and filled 12 or 15 of these positions all at the same time.

  • Bruce Post

    I know both Anya Rader Wallack and Con Hogan and have a great confidence in their ability and integrity. Sure, they have a point of view, but who does not.

    Having monitored the health care reform debate under Howard Dean from both the Department of Health and later the short-lived Vermont Healthcare Information Consortium, I am familiar with what went on then. An excellent post-mortem on the collapse of Dean’s proposed reforms is “Health Care Reform in Vermont: The Next Chapter” by Howard Leichter, in “Health Affairs,” Winter 1994. Here is the abstract of the article:

    “Abstract: It seemed inconceivable that Vermont would not enact comprehensive health care reform in 1994. Two years earlier the Vermont legislature had created the Vermont Health Care Authority to prepare the groundwork for major reform. Yet the 1994 Vermont General Assembly could not reach agreement on legislation. What went wrong? Some on the political left and right say that the legislature stopped “bad” legislation. The Vermont story reveals the failure of reformers to convince interest groups and ordinary citizens about the capacity of government to reform the health system.”

    My sense is that Anya, who was interviewed for that article and worked for Dean, fully appreciates the discrete problems associated with the 1990’s health reform effort. I imagine she is determined not to repeat them, much as Rahm Emmanuel under Obama did not want to repeat the mistakes the Clinton White House made in its crash and burn health reform effort (Rahm worked for Bill Clinton at the time). Reading the “Health Affairs” article, I can see how Gov. Shumlin’s effort tries to adjust for the shortcomings of Dean’s — rightly or wrongly.

    Take a look at the article, and draw your own conclusions. It is a fascinating read.

  • $50,000 is hiring a “whole firm”?

    That’s about enough for serevices from one person in a year.

    Did someone say “propaganda”?

  • vic hudson

    @ Mr. Hoffer, I guess they should have hired you. You’re the best flak that any government-spending program ever had.

    By the way, responding to Mr. Powers by accusing his questioning of the Health Care Board as being “the misleading information and scare tactics of the Right” is the propaganda tactics of the Left. Congratulations. Again, you’re the best flak this program could ever have.

    @ Mr. Cross, isn’t the Shumlin administration spending more on executive advisers and communicators than Douglas did?

  • Amelia Silver

    Thanks Bruce Post for writing an intelligent, informative response to the ready-to-condemn commenters who preceded you. How anyone can describe our current healthcare system as “working” and not in need of drastic reform is baffling. They must be mighty well-insulated against the realities of economic distress.

    School districts, businesses, government programs, all enterprises, use the services of PR firms at different times. When the message is complex, and subtle, it is perfectly appropriate to go to a pro to help convey it. I wonder what the righteously indignant nay-sayers above have to say about Citizens United?!

  • walter carpenter

    “The public has told them in no uncertain terms that we do not support this and it should never have been passed by our legislature.”

    The public has said time and again that they want something done about our reliance on employer-sponsored private health care. There was that time in 05 or 06, when they voted a legislature in to do just that, out of which Catamount emerged. Only the unskillful leadership that could not override a douglas veto prevented it from happening back then.

    “From Atlas Shrugged”

    Ayn Rand loved her government-funded social security social security.

  • Joanna Cummings

    Mr. Margolis, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but in this case you are off the mark. Hiring a public relations firm is not automatically an indication that the board wants to wordsmith messages to deceive the public, or frivolously spend public funds. Often the interpretation of complicated and volatile information–especially for general public consumption–requires the assistance of a skilled communication professional. The communication channels that need to be employed to deliver this information is beyond the time and ability of most program directors/board members to manage. The tone of your article reminds me of the suspicion and government-hating rhetoric constantly filling our ears and eyes. Accountability is necessary but myopic criticism is not, especially in Vermont.

    • Lance Hagen

      Ms. Cummings … “Often the interpretation of complicated and volatile information–especially for general public consumption–requires the assistance of a skilled communication professional.”

      Really ……

      So what you are implying is that we need to hire a PR person to ‘dumb it down’ so that us ‘common folk’ can understand. What an elitist point of view.

      • I read the same statement and see not one iota of support for your retort. Fact is complicated discussions need some orderly approaches – I’m intelligent and well read enough to understand that.

  • Lauren-Glenn Davitian

    If the Board did not have a plan for spreading the word about what they were doing we would accuse them of “lack of transparency”. A communications plan is a smart move.

  • Lance Hagen

    My guess is that they did a preliminary look at the cost, with a more realistic look at the ‘administrative saving’, and said, “ Oh sh_t …….. we better hire a PR person to ‘grease the pole’, cause this puppy ain’t looking like what we promised the folks”.

  • Liz Schlegel

    I’ve got no beef with them hiring help to communicate what’s happening – it’s a fulltime job. Translating the technical information to various audiences using various kinds of media – what goes in the chart, what are the right bullet points – may not sound like your cup of tea, but it is indeed an important and challenging job for a good thinker and writer. And yes, journalism can be excellent training for this work.

    I would prefer an internal staffer rather than a PR firm, because PR forms sometimes focus on the icing more than the cake. And I think in this case we would like a very strong focus on the cake!

    And – not to wave the red cape before the bulls – but let’s all remember that Ayn Rand was a fiction writer.

  • Patricia Crocker

    Many of the people defending the use of a PR firm to communicate Green Mountain Care’s plan are the same people who complain that Advertising and PR done by insurance companies and healthcare providers are raising costs to the consumers. They can’t have their cake and eat it too!

  • walter carpenter

    “PR person to ‘dumb it down’ so that us ‘common folk’ can understand. What an elitist point of view.”

    Joanna and Liz are right. A lot of this is highly technical stuff, only understood if you have lived and breathed it for years, if not decades. To listen to a talk of how insurance companies set rates and justify them, what they base them on, or of the process of cost-shifting, or of medical data information technology, or so many other parts of the bureaucratic-corporate-insurance-medical–technical-speak, can be like listening to a discussion of the byzantium empire. To get this stuff into the English language that we all share with each other is an art form. It has nothing to do with elitism. It is just the same as a carpenter trying to explain the mysteries of what a board foot is or exactly what constitutes a square of shingles to a doctor or a ph.d in the history of the byzantium empire.

  • walter carpenter

    “Advertising and PR done by insurance companies and healthcare providers are raising costs to the consumers.”

    It is because they are helping to raise the costs to the consumers. That, and along with the billions that we involuntarily contribute to lobbying efforts by insurance companies to lobby against any kind of meaningful reform that would lower these costs.

  • I just want to suggest that the VT Interfaith Action (VIA) group is holding informational health care forums in Montpelier, Thursday,January 19th, 7 to 8:30 PM at the Montpelier Unitarian Church and January 25th, Wednesday, 7 to 8:30 PM in Waitsfield at the United Church of Christ. It is important to note that the faith community believes in the process, wants to explain it and start a dialogue. This is not the same as propaganda and will include many of those working on this most important project. Please come and stay tuned to what is REALLY happening! This will not require a PR director.

  • Having done amazing conservation education and water resources work on behalf of citizens as a public relations professional who used an outside public relations firm, I disagree that all PR is a waste. Call it what you want – education, outreach, advocacy – but public agencies need to do it and trained professionals should lead it.

  • We really need to understand the difference between a governor’s paid political flak (the guv’s PR gals and guys) and a professional word crafter who can help explain complicated topics in an honest and forthright manner.

    Obviously Shumlin and Douglas just view it as a way to shout out everyone else so we get bullied out of participating in our public politics.

    I hope this board sticks with it – they’re gonna need something to fend off the BS of Brock, Lisman and Co.

  • Isn’t the point that a state agency shouldn’t hide behind a PR firm? I can see many good reasons an agency – especially one with technical competence and not PR competence – would benefit from the insights and guidance of a good PR firm

    This is a pretty silly article as far as the premise goes – would have been better off looking at the specifics of Vermont health care communication than an inaccurate, broad brush portrayal of PR work. It reflects exactly the kind of parochial thinking one would expect from a podunk state. I didn’t think Vermont was still a podunk state.

    Check out the work of the AdCouncil, Public Agenda, AmericaSpeaks to get grounded in ways public relations can go far beyond “selling stuff” and simplistic jabs at “propaganda.”

  • Mark Ray

    I find it interesting — and very helpful for visitors to your site — that VTDigger has a section for press releases about various topics, ranging from the governor’s current programs to announcements from nonprofits like the Mad River Food Hub to Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s latest filings on behalf of the citizens of Vermont.

    Just last week, I sent an email to your editor announcing a client’s scholarship program. And yes, it was published on VTDigger.

    Is Mr. Margolis suggesting that all of these news items should be banished because public relations professionals likely were involved?

    If so, VTDigger soon would find itself very light on content. Not only that, voices and perspectives would be missing from the conversations that happen every day in the Vermont media scene.

    VTDigger, like any other media outlet, has a responsibility to vet the information it receives before sharing it with the public. In turn, organizations and companies (including their PR firms) have an obligation to present truthful and accurate information. If that means that a small group of health care professionals relies on a public relations firm to inform the public of its activities, seek input on its progress, and share how and why the board plans to solve the tangled issues in question, then hiring a public relations professional or firm is an investment in realizing the goals of the organization.

    On the media side, I would be curious to see how many outlets would claim never to have collaborated with a public relations representative or firm on a story. We share news, information and insights from our clients about the world around us. It’s the media’s obligation to determine if it’s newsworthy.

  • Seconding Mark Ray’s thoughts.

    PR pros spend more time lately convincing their client not to spin than the other way around. BS falls flat in the age of the internet and anyone succeeding today in PR lives that everyday. Good PR (in house staffer or agency) is built on understanding audiences, mediums and current events, then integrating that knowledge with an organizations words, pics, videos and timing. Do folks who are neck deep in health care issues do that well? No. Is it important to be effective? Yes.

    While I do agree that in this case a new staff member would have been a cleaner move than the RFP, getting hot and bothered over the idea of there being a communications profession is misguided at best.

    Smart businesses look at communications and PR as their in-house journalist calling BS when it pops up. This effort helps it maintain relevancy when it gets out and about. Feels a bit like the author wrote the above before the advent of the internet. Granted, it might have been that way 10 years ago when you could call a spade a club and there was no rabid internet audience to crush you for it, but at this point, being a broker of spin is a fast track to no credibility. PR folks spend much of their day explaining that internally to leadership who might not get it yet. We’ll keep it up – and those press releases will keep losing buzzwords. Also consumers will continue getting more info from “owned media” now that orgs are embracing transparency and hiring storytellers. Otherwise known as Communications Managers and PR firms.

  • This is article seems to be based on the premise that the only function of a PR firm is to obfuscate the inner workings of whatever cabal their representing, who is surely up to something so nefarious that the general public would go all pitchforks and torches if they caught wind.

    Or so I thought, until the article by concluded by expressing all of the potentially positive effects of a PR person?

    What are we actually outraged about, the theoretical size of the PR company the board hasn’t hired yet?

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