WASTEBOOK: Government Public Relations & Advertising
A good product sells itself.
So what does it say when more than $1.4 billion is spent every year promoting federal agencies and services but trust and confidence in the government have plummeted?
Federal contracts for advertising and public relations average nearly $1 billion a year, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).359 Sixty percent of PR contracts are paid for by the Department of Defense (DOD).
Another $430 million a year is spent paying the salaries of approximately 4,900 federal public relations employees. The median annual salary for government public relation staff is about $90,000. DOD also employs the largest number of public relations staff. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had the largest percentage increase in public relations employees over the past decade. The number of VA PR staff grew more than nine percent from 144 employees in 2006 to 286 in 2014.
The total cost of PR activities governmentwide is higher than the $1.4 billion spent on contracts and employees, but is difficult to calculate. This is due, in part, to public relations activities not being delineated from other activities in contracts with broader purposes. “Although advertising and public relations contracts data provide an indication of the magnitude of federal spending on public relations activities, they do not capture the full scope of these activities,” says GAO.
GAO describes public relations as “an effort to develop and disseminate information to explain the activities of and the issues facing [an] organization,” which includes “issuing press releases and producing material for radio and television broadcasts.” The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) says “public relations” includes “community relations and those activities dedicated to maintaining the image of the governmental unit or maintaining or promoting understanding and favorable relations with the community or public at large or any segment of the public.”
Advertising consumes the largest amount of what is spent on public relations by federal agencies.
Agency Average Annual Cost
Department of Defense $626.2 million
Department of Health and Human Services $116.7 million
Department of Commerce $37.7 million
Department of Homeland Security $37.6 million
Department of Transportation $36.0 million
Department of Veterans Affairs $23.6 million
Department of Agriculture $8.8 million
Department of Justice $5.9 million
Department of State $5.8 million
Department of Labor $5.6 million
The Department of Defense spends more on public relations and advertising than any other federal agency.
Despite the high cost of these efforts, just 32 percent of Americans surveyed expressed “a favorable impression of the federal government,” according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. “Currently, just 19 percent say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20 percent would describe government programs as being well-run,” according to the Pew findings. The least popular agencies are the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, the IRS, and the VA, all of which were viewed unfavorably by a majority of those surveyed.
The GAO report was requested by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi who says “with increasing pressures on limited federal resources, it is crucial to know how much is spent across the federal government on public relations activities.”
Federal agencies could improve their public relations at no cost whatsoever by simply conducting themselves efficiently and effectively rather than misspending taxpayer dollars on questionable and unnecessary projects and activities that will inevitably end up in Wastebook.