Federal Agencies Spend About $1.5 Billion on PR Each Year

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., thanked GAO for shining light on the issue. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., thanked GAO for shining light on the issue. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

Federal agencies spent an average of $1.5 billion per year on public relations and advertising over the last decade, according to a new report.

Agencies have obligated about $1 billion per year on contracts for advertising services, the Government Accountability Office found, and an additional $500 million on salaries for internal public affairs professionals. Most of the spending is concentrated at just a few agencies; 95 percent of the contracted appropriations came from 10 agencies. The Defense Department employs about 40 percent of government’s roughly 5,000 public affairs officers.

Agencies spend money on advertising for four main reasons, GAO said. Public education and awareness includes programs like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicizing information on the Zika virus or the Transportation Department advocating against distracted driving. The Education Department spends money on disseminating information for people applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is categorized as customer service. Some agencies conduct PR through general information, such as the Smithsonian’s constant broadcast of the National Zoo’s panda bears. Finally, agencies spend money on compliance with laws and policies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency soliciting comments on a new regulation.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and requested the audit, praised GAO for shining “more light on these activities.”

“With increasing pressures on limited federal resources, it is crucial to know how much is spent across the federal government on public relations activities and which federal agencies are spending the most,” Enzi said.

While the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services spent the most total dollars on advertising and public relations, the outlays accounted for just 0.07 percent and 0.01 percent, respectively, of their total obligations over the last 10 years on those services. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has existed only since 2011, has obligated the highest average annual spending on PR as a percentage of its total spending over the last decade at 0.83 percent. The Peace Corps followed at 0.31 percent.

Public affairs officers earned an average of $90,000 in fiscal 2014, a 17 percent increase from fiscal 2006. The employees make up just 0.28 percent of the total federal workforce. Nearly 6 percent of the Federal Election Commission's employees were PAOs in fiscal 2014, the most of any agency, followed by the Small Business Administration, State Department, EPA and National Science Foundation.  

GAO cautioned its calculations were based on data that may not include the full scope of public relations activity. 

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