High cost of selling gov­ern­ment to its cit­i­zens

“The con­scious and in­tel­li­gent ma­nip­u­la­tion of the or­ga­nized habits and opin­ions of the masses is an im­por­tant el­e­ment in demo­cratic so­ci­ety,” wrote Ed­ward Ber­nays, re­garded as the “fa­ther of pub­lic re­la­tions,” in his in­flu­en­tial 1928 book, “Pro­pa­ganda.”

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - — Los An­ge­les Daily News, Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

Fed­eral agen­cies have spent about $1 bil­lion a year over the past decade on ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port. Even this fig­ure likely un­der­states the ac­tual costs, the GAO notes, due to im­pre­cise bud­get clas­si­fi­ca­tions and the dif­fi­culty in defin­ing “pub­lic re­la­tions” ac­tiv­i­ties and per­son­nel.

The De­fense De­part­ment is re­spon­si­ble for the largest share of pub­lic re­la­tions ac­tiv­ity by far, ac­count­ing for 40 per­cent of all fed­eral pub­lic re­la­tions per­son­nel and 60 per­cent of all PR spend­ing. The De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs ex­pe­ri­enced the largest rate of in­crease in pub­lic re­la­tions spend­ing dur­ing the pe­riod, dou­bling its PR staff from 144 in 2006 to 286 in 2014 (which was, prob­a­bly not co­in­ci­den­tally, the year the VA hos­pi­tal neg­li­gence and wait time scan­dal broke).

The gov­ern­ment’s pub­lic re­la­tions ser­vices in­clude per­fectly le­git­i­mate func­tions, such as pro­vid­ing no­tice of im­pend­ing reg­u­la­tions and pub­lic com­ment pe­ri­ods or in­form­ing the pub­lic about health and safety threats. But when the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment launches an ex­pen­sive pro-Oba­macare ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign, or the Pen­tagon tries to spin and in­flu­ence me­dia cov­er­age of mil­i­tary ac­tions, the ques­tion we must con­tin­u­ally ask is: When does pub­lic in­for­ma­tion cross the line to pro­pa­ganda?

A re­port last year from Ari­zona Repub­li­can Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake crit­i­cized what they called “paid pa­tri­o­tism,” the prac­tice of the mil­i­tary pay­ing pro and col­lege sports teams to per­form on­field flag cer­e­monies, sur­prise home­com­ings, wounded war­rior tributes, cer­e­mo­nial first pitches and the like. “Amer­i­cans de­serve the abil­ity to as­sume that tributes for our men and women in mil­i­tary uni­form are gen­uine dis­plays of national pride, which many are, rather than tax­payer-funded DoD mar­ket­ing gim­micks,” they stated.

And a 2008 New York Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that the retired mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who serve as “mil­i­tary an­a­lysts” on many news pro­grams of­ten­times par­roted ad­min­is­tra­tion talk­ing points in ex­change for spe­cial brief­ings and ac­cess to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, which many of them used to ad­vance their own busi­ness in­ter­ests by pur­su­ing gov­ern­ment de­fense con­tracts.

As Rea­son Mag­a­zine’s Eric Boehm ar­gued in a pointed crit­i­cism, “To be fair, the De­part­ment of De­fense’s PR team has a tough job. They have to sell the Amer­i­can pub­lic on the value of for­eign mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions (some­thing most Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally op­pose) and have to spin the bomb­ings of hos­pi­tals and the dron­ing of innocent civil­ians at wed­ding par­ties as be­ing in the best in­ter­est of Amer­ica’s de­fense — or at least as some­thing other than war crimes.”

It is bad enough that the gov­ern­ment spends our own money in ways with which many tax­pay­ers would dis­agree, but it is a dou­ble slap in the face when it uses those hard-earned dol­lars to pat it­self on the back for these in­fringe­ments or tries to ma­nip­u­late our opin­ions and be­hav­ior.

It is a dou­ble slap in the face when it uses those hard-earned dol­lars to pat it­self on the back for these in­fringe­ments or tries to ma­nip­u­late our opin­ions and be­hav­ior.

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