State- and local government agencies have emerged as major customers of often- high-priced public relations (PR) firms, reports newspaper Dagsavisen. A survey of public accounts shows that the state health directorate alone has spent NOK 46 million (USD 7.6 million) on communications services in the past three years.
Dagsavisen has been tracking what many see as a questionable use of taxpayer money, if the goal is to make the bureaucrats look good. The newspaper reported, for example, that the state agency in charge of the defense ministry’s real estate (Forsvarsbygg) paid NOK 17,000 to the PR and advertising firm Burson-Marsteller to write a letter to the editor of newspaper Aftenposten that was signed by its director. He apparently needed help to write the letter himself.
Burson-Marsteller’s three biggest customers last year were the state health directorate (Helsedirektoratet), the state highway department (Statens Vegvesen) and the power utility Statnett, reported Dagsavisen. Morten Woldsdal, leader of the PR branch’s trade association KOMM, said that the use of PR services within the public sector is steadily increasing.
State agencies have also been criticized for their widespread use of consulting firms that charge high hourly rates for their services. The health directorate used Burson-Marsteller to mount its anti-smoking campaign last year, while Statnett used the firm to help it fend off massive criticism over its development of huge power lines in the mountains during the “monster mast” conflict. Kjell Vinje of the state highway department, which paid Burson-Marsteller NOK 5.3 million for help with a national transport plan, admitted the money amounts seem “almost absurd for those of us who work with communications.”
Vinje noted, however, that the highway department needed help to carry out the major project, while others say the external communications advisers “fill out” their own internal competence.