Government to Examine Use of Outside PR Firms – Looking for Publicity or Propaganda

by Mike Wendy on November 26, 2010

I came across a little noted story, buried in page B3 of yesterday’s Washington Post.  In “McCaskill panel to probe federal use of PR firms,” Senator Claire McCaskill’s examination into how the GSA handled cleanup at the messy Bannister Federal Complex lead to a surprising discovery – a four month, $234,000 contract with a Kansas City public affairs firm (Jane Mobley Associates) to develop an “emergency communications plan” for the Complex’s complex pollution problems.

What’s so bad here?  As the story points out:

“When used appropriately, public relations contracts may help federal agencies educate the public about health risks, emergency planning or similar topics,” the senator wrote in a letter this month to GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson and Daniel I. Gordon, chief of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. But McCaskill noted that “publicity experts” cannot engage in “publicity and propaganda” unless authorized by Congress.

McCaskill, chairwoman of a Senate panel that oversees government contracts, requested detailed explanations of the government’s use of outside “publicity experts.”

“I am concerned whether spending money on these services is in the best interests of the taxpayer,” she wrote.

What kind of “services” does $234k buy these days?  Well, building “neutral third party expertise” to “develop messaging” in order to anticipate (deflect?) adverse media and other coverage (seems it backfired here, huh?).

On the Jane Mobley website, JMA notes that the company is known as a “national practice that engineers public consent around projects of community importance.”

What could “engineer public consent” mean?

Maybe it’s “enlisting” grasstops /grassroots support in order to “shape” public opinion – using community thought-leaders to tamp down the masses – about the government’s poor job?  It sounds not too distant from Cass Sunsteins’ “Cognitive Infiltration” (CI) thesis – an interesting approach to influencing public opinion when the government is behind the rhetorical 8-ball. In Conspiracy Theories, he proposes to use CI to break up extremist thought / groups by introducing “idea diversity.”

At a top level, Sunstein says CI works roughly like this:

We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.

Break out the t-squares and slide rules, boys.  The government’s got some idea diversity to engineer!

I hope Senator McCaskill follows up on her hearing plans.  Though it’ll certainly be broader than the Bannister Complex matter, as it pertains specifically to that, I think it’d be important to know:

  • What was actually delivered (all work product that the government paid for)
  • What were the mechanics, such as meetings with government officials, policymakers, experts and outside groups
  • Who were the “experts” that developed the “messaging”
  • What were the outside groups that might have been “engineered” for support
  • Any opinion pieces “written” by grasstops individuals
  • What were the messaging points – good and bad
  • Any backgrounders on reporters to be pitched – good and bad
  • What media outlets and reporters were pitched
  • What stories aired on all media, and any audits of that coverage
  • Any chatroom or social media coverage / involvement

The list could go on.  And that’s the problem – this is not government in the sunlight.   Rather, it’s government that looks like it’s lurking in the murky nether-regions of spin and propaganda to manipulate the populace.

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