Federal employees spend more than $1 billion a year boosting the government’s image, including the salaries of an estimated 5,000 official “spokesmen” who often ignore questions from reporters about agency operations and try to distract public attention away from embarrassing scandals.
“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?” wrote Sen. Jeff Flake, who called attention to the government’s concern with manipulating its image in Wastebook, a compendium of questionable government spending.
“Federal agencies could improve their public relations at no cost whatsoever by simply conducting themselves efficiently and effectively,” the Arizona Republican wrote.
But too often the response of federal departments and agencies to scandals and reporter questioning is to either ignore the queries or to seek to shift public attention to other matters by hiring additional public relations people.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for example, increased its public relations staff from 144 to 286 in the past eight years, according to Wastebook. One of the projects the staff came up with to counter coverage of VA bosses retaliating against whistleblowers was propaganda materials based on the theme of “I will talk positively about my workplace to others.”
At another VA facility, officials said they would call the police on any roaming reporters who might ask employees uncomfortable questions about a disgraced chief of staff being given his job back despite having a suspended medical license.
The troubled VA is hardly the only federal department with huge PR expenditures. The Department of Defense spends $625 million a year on PR; the Department of Health and Human Services spends $115 million, according to Wastebook.
The Department of Labor’s $6 million a year in PR spending has paid for gay rights documentaries, poetry competitions and a book club, all with only tenuous connections to the agency’s basic mission of protecting fairness and equity in the workplace.
Even obscure agencies get in on the PR act. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which has only 230 employees, has three full-time PR people, even though it gets only about two dozen media questions per year.
There are also times when executive branch agency PR campaigns are barely concealed campaigns using taxpayer funds to indirectly lobby lawmakers. A campaign funded by the EPA made inaccurate claims about agriculture being “unregulated” and in need of reform.
The head of the What’s Upstream campaign, created with a $12 million EPA grant, said “It’s possibly not 100 percent true, not 100 percent lie.” The campaign called Washington state farmers “polluters of our waterways.”
The campaign’s website featured a “form letter to state legislators asking for mandatory 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.” The site included a photograph of a cow in the water that was taken in Amish country in Pennsylvania.
When local reporters peppered EPA with questions about the campaign, the federal PR operatives clammed up. “The EPA has stopped taking questions about What’s Upstream, including an important one: How much has the agency spent?” a local paper said.
In addition, EPA officials have ignored The Daily Caller News Foundation’s multiple requests for comment on the campaign in recent year.
Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact [email protected].