Can’t See the Forest for the Spin

Apparently, the Bush Admin didn’t learn its lesson about the imprudence of using outside public relations firms to spin its education message and is now trying to replace U.S. Forest Service information officers with PR consultants. (Disclosure: I am a PR consultant in the leisure travel industry.) According to the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the move to outsource spokesperson duties is the first step in Bush’s renewed effort to further gut the Forest Service and erode forest protections.

The U.S. Forest Service announced that it is weighing replacement of 100 of its public information staff with private public relations firms, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The move is motivated by pressure from the Bush White House to put more federal jobs out to bid by private contractors in order to “increase the cost-effectiveness of Forest Service work.”

According to agency memos, 100 of the agency’s 700 public affairs officers, public affairs specialists, writers, editors, graphic artists, illustrators and audio visual specialists will be reviewed by June 30 to determine whether the positions would be subject to bid by private firms. The agency plans to make decisions this fall and contractors could be in place by January.

Hundreds of other positions throughout the agency may be subject to similar bidding in 2006. In 2004, citing cost overruns and potential side effects, Congress severely restricted the Bush Administration efforts to outsource Forest Service and National Park Service jobs. Those restrictions, however, lapsed this past October and now the Bush Administration is again pushing its “Competitive Sourcing” initiative.

“Wag the Dog is coming to a national forest near you,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring to the movie about government use of PR firms to manipulate public perception of events. “Civil servants are under a legal obligation to tell the public the truth while PR firms specialize in shading it. Outsourcing the public information function risks putting a premium on spin at the expense of candor.”

President Bush promised to limit reliance on PR firms after recent controversy over federal agency payments to commentators for promoting Bush Administration programs. Through this “Competitive Sourcing” mechanism, these same firms can have a long-term role in shaping agency communication practices.

In 2004, the Forest Service spent $113,000 for a public relations firm to design a campaign to gain public acceptance of the agency plan to increase logging in California’s Sierra Nevadas. The campaign, titled “Forests With a Future,” sparked criticism but the Government Accountability Office ultimately ruled that the contract did not violate prohibitions on using taxpayer dollars to pay for “publicity or propaganda.”

Ironically, the Forest Service needs to retain contractors in order to prepare private sector competitions. Previous Bush competitive sourcing plans at the Forest Service involved possible contracting for law enforcement, biologist and sylviculturalist positions. The agency spent an estimated $100 million before Congress stepped in and put the effort on hold.

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