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BUYING SPIN: The art and science of purchasing communications services

by Patrick Doyle

In the last issue of Summit, veteran reporter Patrick Doyle took a look at the way the federal government purchases advertising services. He's back this time with a report on procurement in a related field - communications, home to hundreds of speechwriters and strategists.

Canadian media, and by extension the public, delight in citing examples of wasteful public spending every time they catch a whiff of governments spending money on anything connected with advertising or public relations. And negative publicity is enough to give a public service manager nightmares when confronted with the possibility of getting involved with buying communications services.

Take, for example, during the uproar over job fund money at Human Resources Development Canada, one national newspaper reporting that $50,000 had been spent on an image consultant with Liberal connections to help beleaguered HRDC minister Jane Stewart. The words were carefully neutral but the blaring headline "Fifty grand" was enough to convey the impression of patronage and waste.

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair, lately the darling of the British tabloid press, was the subject of criticism over spending of £1 billion on what the headlines called "Spin Doctors." "That cash would have been enough to build 14 hospitals or 1,000 new schools, or pay for 65,000 new nurses," the Sunday Mirror reported.

Professional communications managers are accustomed to the problem. But with decentralization and devolution program managers in a wide variety of areas are getting involved in communications. And they want to know how to get through the potential minefield without a misstep.

First, they will want to know if the rumour that the political level of government has strong views and preferences is true. The answer is both "yes" and "no."

Given the nature of politics in democracies, the so-called spin doctors - advertising executives, public relations consultants, pollsters and a host of other strategic advisers - are the people politicians and political parties count on to help get them elected. Much of the work on election campaigns and leadership contests is done on a volunteer basis, but it would require a strong belief in the tooth fairy to think that these professionals donate hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of services simply in the interest of furthering the people and parties whose policies most closely reflect their own.

In earlier, simpler times, such devotion to the cause was rewarded by the simple quid pro quo known as jobs-for-the-boys or, more crudely, a place at the public trough. Media in those earlier and simpler times - themselves usually allied with one political faction or another and hence beneficiaries of the system - understood how things worked and limited criticisms to the usual rants of the "Outs" against the "Ins."

It is to be expected that once a party is in power it is going to want to see that business flows to the friends that got it elected. As well, there is a certain comfort level with people of similar ideological bent crafting your important messages that still applies today in our less simple times. But that isn't to say the Ins of the day can simply hand work to their friends.

The Treasury Board's contracting policy carefully spells out exactly how contracts are to be awarded.

According to spokespersons for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), the policy is designed to be "fair, open and transparent." Noble sentiments. Unfortunately, those who are in charge of ensuring that the system be all those things are anything but like that when it comes to discussing how the policy works in practice. PWGSC's Procurement Services' Communications Coordination Services Branch, which is responsible for all communications contracts valued at more than $25,000, would not grant an interview but asked for questions to be submitted in writing - which we did.

But we did speak with several current and former senior communications executives from the federal public service. All agree that the system is honest. And being communications professionals they not surprisingly defend the use of government money on public relations. But that is not to say there isn't room for improvement.

Tim Kane, chairman and CEO of Ottawa's Delta Media and a one-time public servant, complains about the amount of time, effort and money that he and others have to put into preparing submissions for small contracts. "Bureaucrats all like to do things by the book. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before you can get a simple $25,000 contract," he says.

Kane estimated that close to 50 percent of his business is with the federal government - public opinion research, focus groups and communications strategies, implementation of media relations strategies and media spokesperson training. He gets frustrated by the amount of paperwork involved with the smaller contracts and has little faith in the MERX bidding system to produce business for his firm.

"It is a shame to waste so much time on things that appear to be predetermined," Kane said. "A couple of years ago we put a significant amount of work into a job that was worth about a quarter of a million dollars. I thought we had the ideal team. But I started to get suspicious and when I checked around I was told that there was another group that 'just has to win.' We didn't win. I just wish we knew that before we spent about $10,000 on preparing the bid."

Régis Gagné, acting director general, procurement services, Communications Coordination Services Branch at PWGSC, was asked what could be done to eliminate the appearance of favouritism in some contract awards. He denied that any problem exists.

"The procurement system is set up to be fair, open and transparent. As such, all solicitations, statements of work and evaluation criteria are posted on MERX, the government's electronic tendering system. In addition, Advance Contract Award Notices (ACANs) are posted prior to the award of sole-source contracts over $25,000 to ensure proper openness," Gagné replied in a written statement.

PWGSC refused to estimate how much the government spends annually on communications. That blanket responsibility covers a wide variety of services, according to Gagné. "Communications consultants can be used for a variety of communications requirements, including, but not limited to, writing, editing, communications planning and development, media relations and public relations services." (A complete list of communications services bought by the Government of Canada can be found on the Contracts Canada website).

Ruth Cardinal, a senior member of Brad Mann Communications Consulting Inc. and a former assistant secretary to the Cabinet for communications and consultation, is one of Ottawa's most knowledgeable communications executives. She staunchly defends the system as being both honest and effective although she concedes something could probably be done to streamline the paper burden on both public service managers and bidders alike. "Developing a request for proposal (RFP) and making the proposal can be a pretty big task for all concerned," says Cardinal.

And Cardinal concedes that the simple reality is some firms and/or people are going to have an inside track on some bids by virtue of their experience with the specific work on which they are bidding.

"You have to learn to read the RFP pretty closely. If it is very specific you can be sure the people have somebody in mind. You just have to know your way around town and around the system," she says.

There is even a rough justice built into what might on the surface appear to be unfair.

"If you end up getting the contract and you aren't the person the minister or the bureaucracy wanted and has confidence in, it won't be a happy experience over time. The other side of the coin is that over time relationships pale and then other people have a chance."


Patrick Doyle, formerly a journalist with the Toronto Star and the CBC, is a freelance writer based in Carleton Place, Ontario. He has also been a communications executive with both the public and private sectors.



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