In mid-September, public relations firm Edelman sent an e-mail to a few reporters on behalf of an unnamed federal agency asking for insights on helping “refine their agency messaging.”
It asked the reporters to “keep the conversation confidential” and not to “report on anything discussed in the interview.” For participating, Edelman offered to “donate $175 to a charity on your behalf.”
Alison Knopf, editor of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, received that e-mail and ignored it. After a second attempt, Knopf wrote back inquiring about the agency in question.
“Our clients are national government agencies within the health industry,” an Edelman PR person responded. “We are hoping to gain insight into how our messages are being received by journalists.”
Pressing again, Knopf (who also corrected the Edelman rep that there are federal agencies, not national agencies), asked which agency. “We are not disclosing the client’s names in order to keep the interview results on a general basis,” Knopf was told.
After some reporting, Knopf found out from sources at the Health and Human Services Department that the agency soliciting public relations help was the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“It struck me as a really odd way to approach reporters … I think it’s crazy,” she told the Loop. “Anybody who has covered the federal health agencies for a long time, this has been a very difficult administration in terms of transparency.”
A spokesman for SAMHSA, Brad Stone, confirmed the agency was using Edelman to improve its communications.
“The Edelman effort is information-gathering in nature, and designed to provide SAMHSA with an enhanced understanding of how it could better meet the interests and needs of the behavioral healthcare community,” Stone said in an e-mail.
Now it’s not uncommon for federal agencies to use taxpayer dollars to hire outside public relations organizations to help with their outreach. SAMSHA’s fiscal 2016 budget request asked for $16 million for “public awareness and support.”
Does that include hiring a middle man to better pitch to reporters?
Now, if you read our colleagues Marc Fisher and Katie Zezima’s most recent article over the weekend for our series on heroin addiction, no one would say raising public awareness around these issues isn’t absolutely crucial. But simply providing information and resources to reporters to tell those stories is probably more effective than secretive research and charity bribes.
“If any health agency needs guidance about what to tell reporters, they don’t need to pay a public relations agency to find out,” Knopf wrote in her weekly trade publication. “They can just be transparent, answer questions directly and provide sources without minders. Nobody needs another layer of spin.”