Government

Public Agencies Are Spending More on PR to Boost Their Reputations

Though police departments and other public agencies employ their own communications officers, they’re increasingly hiring PR companies to manage their messaging to the public.

Chula Vista
The city of Chula Vista has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR efforts to produce positive news about the city and to promote its police drone program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In a promotional recruitment video for the San Diego Police Department, the camera flashes between scenes of SWAT officers bursting out of a tactical vehicle. Cops on four-wheelers speed across a beach, a camera overhead focuses on a passing crowd and police sirens blare as a patrol car races by.

“This is not the next job. This is next level,” the opening words of the video read.

The intense 15-second video is the product of a $350,000 marketing contract between the police department and a private marketing firm with a division devoted to PR work for government agencies. The recruitment campaign was a success, according to the people who made it. The Loma Media website says the video “helped SDPD welcome its largest Academy class in a quarter century,” all through an aggressive branding campaign, targeted outreach and elaborate communication plans.

That was a year after former SDPD police chief Shelley Zimmerman blamed the media for the department’s recruiting challenges in a City Council meeting in 2017. Police union leaders in California have also taken aim at the media making similar claims. With PR and marketing professionals, police departments can produce an expertly tailored image of themselves for the public.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from Loma Media said the company helps organizations to “create awareness of new initiatives, convey critical information, share successes and correct misconceptions.”

This type of relationship — where public agencies contract with private marketing firms for PR and branding campaigns once exclusive to the private domain — is not unique to SDPD.

In fact, many cities and government entities now rely on contracts with PR firms to manage their messaging to the public. In some cases, PR firms are contracted to oversee messaging campaigns for services or announcements, but in others, they’re trying to boost the image or enhance the reputation of the public agencies themselves. Increasingly, these PR contracts are taking up a larger sum of public funds each year.

In 2011, San Diego County spent nearly $500,000 on PR contracts, according to records from the county. In 2020, the county spent more than $15 million on just three contracts. The largest contract that year was for a Health & Human Services Agency suicide prevention campaign, which totaled $14 million.

The jump in spending came from an increased availability of grants, which the county can use to cover these projects, said Michael Workman, the county’s communications director. Professional PR and marketing firms have technical capabilities and access to resources that the county doesn’t, so enlisting their help to manage health campaigns like for mental health and anti-smoking actually makes grant funding go further, Workman said.

The county itself employs more than a dozen communications officers. Their work is focused on communicating directly with the public — managing media requests, social media, graphics and tech support for press conferences and meetings. Outside work from PR firms is separate from what the communications team does, Workman said.

Loma Media’s website boasts of having worked with more than 100 clients, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, the Navy SEALs and General Atomics, a defense contractor. Other PR groups, like Cole Pro Media, which also worked with SDPD, has a clientele made up exclusively of police departments and local municipalities.

Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, said in an email that working with Loma Media and Cole Pro Media “enhance our ability to build trusting relationships with all of the communities we serve.”

Cole Pro Media also helped SDPD increase its presence on social media, KPBS reported last year. The Vacaville-based group works with police departments up and down the state.

Laura Cole, the former journalist who runs Cole Pro Media, also heads another company called Critical Incidents Videos, The Mercury News reported earlier this month. The latter has come under scrutiny for helping police cut, splice and frame videos that some say make officer shootings look justified.

Many of the PR contracts provided to VOSD by SDPD so far include vague descriptions of the type of work the companies were hired to perform. Often, the contract simply states the company will perform “media services” without any additional information. The bulk of the city of San Diego’s PR spending over the last 10 years was on its police department, but VOSD is still waiting on other contracts to be released from the city.

“Nothing is more important to us than being open, honest and transparent, and we must continue to evolve in the best practices of communication,” Takeuchi said.

In Mayor Todd Gloria’s proposed budget for SDPD over the next fiscal year, he carved out space to purchase software capable of performing “neighborhood sentiment analysis” using seized asset funds. In an email, Takeuchi said SDPD wants to use social media channels to poll residents on public safety issues and gauge the effectiveness of their ongoing outreach efforts.

The types of public agencies in the county that enlist the help of PR professionals run the gamut — from police departments to local utility departments. So do the types of projects PR companies work on.

In Chula Vista, PR professionals helped officials shape media narratives and frame the city in a better light. The city has been able to capture outside media attention for its drone-as-first-responder program, in part, with the help of PR professionals.

In one contract from 2011 signed with High Beam Marketing for $50,000, the goal was to develop “a strategic public communications framework and process roadmap for consistent and systematic dissemination of positive news about the city in order to shape perceptions to more accurately reflect the positive attributes of Chula Vista.”

In response to a request for PR and marketing contracts for Chula Vista going back to 2011, the city’s police department said it did not have any.

Other Chula Vista contracts in recent years sought to create a brand for the city that would attract visitors and increase the city’s visibility.

Anne Steinberger, the marketing and communications manager for Chula Vista, said those efforts have been successful. One contract totaling $400,000 with the firm NV5 had “increased awareness and attendance at Chula Vista attractions, events and destinations; resulted in increased awareness and positive engagement on social media; and enhanced our social media program with #ThisIsChula continuing as one of the most popular hashtags on our social media platforms,” she said in an email.

In Oceanside, the city spent millions over the past decade on PR contracts for just the city’s water utilities department.

Terry Brown, who works in the Oceanside city manager’s office, said the city does not have any staff dedicated exclusively to communications work. Instead, it turns outward to seek help when communicating with the public.

Lately, the majority of that work has been for the water utilities department, which carries out over $200 million in capital improvement projects per year, including environmental programs like water conservation, solid waste and recycling and watershed protection and habitat restoration, Brown said.

Some of those projects have caused disruptions throughout neighborhoods in the city, which means residents have questions and complaints. That’s where PR companies can step in.

“Public relations contracted staff serves as a communication liaison between the project managers and the general public, fielding questions about projects, dealing with disputes, helping educate the public about the project, organizing and helping to staff neighborhood meetings … Support involves responding to customer issues 24/7,” Brown said in an email.

Oceanside also paid for PR work for its police department. In September 2020, after a summer of racial justice protests in San Diego following the murder of George Floyd, Oceanside officials inked a $25,000 contract to “improve the community’s understanding, awareness and appreciation of public safety services, and that increases overall public trust in law enforcement,” according to the contract.

The Oceanside police chief, Fred Armijo, said through a spokesperson that the department hired a consultant following feedback from the protest organizers about the department’s lack of communication with the public. That contract ended in February and the department is now looking for its first full-time public information officer since 2003.

In smaller cities, PR contracts helped develop brands and products to attract visitors and businesses, promote community assets and encourage participation.

La Mesa, for instance, contracted with MJE marketing in 2018 to build a plan that would “develop communication channels and tools that are perceived as the most accurate source for city government information,” according to the contract. That included brand positions, newsletters, community engagement and social media.

In El Cajon, a PR firm helped the city design and distribute a public recreation guide and city newsletter. In Escondido, another firm helped the city develop a social media presence.

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