- - Sunday, November 25, 2012

The government has spent more than $16 billion over the past decade on outside advertising, marketing and public relations contractors, feeding a cottage industry of inside-the-Beltway and Madison Avenue firms that help federal agencies burnish their images and tailor their messages, an investigation by the Washington Guardian and Northwestern University’s Medill News Service has found.

Many of the contracts are awarded without full competition, and some of the funding goes to foreign contractors whose names the government refuses to disclose, the review of federal spending records from fiscal years 2002 through 2012 found.

The money is above and beyond the millions of dollars a year that agencies already spend on their full-time press, communications and media operations, and it has gone to pay for projects as varied as NASCAR and sports sponsorships, recruitment efforts for the military services, veterans benefits, welfare aid, and programs that help multibillion-dollar multinational corporations pitch their products to overseas customers, the records show.

Those on the front lines of the work say federal agencies’ reliance on advertising, PR and media firms is just one of the many signs of how much the era of instant 24/7 Internet and TV access has transformed the government’s job of communicating to Americans.

A few decades ago, the government’s main advertising business focused on pitching public service announcements, such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey Bear fire-prevention commercials.

Today, consultants are brought in for communication projects as targeted as recruiting translators and linguists for national security agencies and as urgent as advertising campaigns such as the one the Obama administration rushed onto airwaves in Pakistan in September, featuring the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologizing for an Internet video that originated in the United States and offended Muslims worldwide.

Some advertising campaigns identified in the investigation, however, are likely to leave small-government advocates scratching their heads. For instance:

The Veterans Affairs Department has spent $25 million on advertising since 2011 to encourage more retired troops to take advantage of its mental health services, luring new customers into a system that is suffering historic backlogs for the people it already tries to serve.

The Labor Department spent a half-million dollars on a public relations firm to advertise the benefits of a clean-energy jobs retraining program, which the Washington Guardian reported in September significantly missed its goals.

The Agriculture Department spent millions since 2008 on ads designed to encourage more Americans to enroll for food stamps — many in Spanish and targeted at Hispanics — while the government safety-net program already has record expenditures. The department ended the ads shortly before the election, after conservatives complained.

Federal agencies insist the advertising and marketing help is essential to their missions, saying the money has gone to recruit workers, sell American products overseas, advertise services, and inform and educate the public about dangers as well as opportunities and assistance.

“We really want to represent America’s farmers and ranchers, and those are raw commodities. They demonstrate a full array of the types of food that are produced here in the United States,” explained Matt Herrick, a spokesman at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help American companies market their agricultural products overseas.

Nonetheless, the entire line of spending is likely to draw scrutiny as congressional budget-cutters look for savings to reduce massive federal deficits.

“At a time when we’re facing a $16 trillion debt and the impending bankruptcy of safety-net programs like Medicare and Social Security, spending $16 billion on advertising consultants raises troubling questions,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has spent years in Congress seeking elusive deals to cut spending. “Congress has an obligation to find out who made these decisions, and for what purpose, and then hold agencies accountable for any misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Washington Guardian and Medill News Service reviewed a decade’s worth of federal spending records to provide the first-ever accounting of how much money the government spent hiring contractors to create or place ads, tailor messages, handle public relations or craft communication strategies.

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