How Much Does The Federal Government Spend on Advertising-Public Affairs?

by admin on October 13, 2016



The federal government spends $1 billion annually on public affairs work, and allocates $500 million for salaries.

Is federal spending on public affairs too much?


Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of award-winning media relations, over fifty national and regional awards. Graduate, post-master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.

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GentleReader: The report below documents the extent of federal government public relations activities. It was offered by the General Accounting Office (GAO) on September 30, 2016 as part of a Senatorial request. What’s here is heavily edited to bring you highlights of the report. The source is below.

Note that there are people doing public affairs work throughout the federal government who are not listed in a “public affairs” category. There are an endless number of people assigned to public affairs who are Management Analysts, writers, secretaries and other categories of employees; what’s below is an undercount. There are others who operate social media accounts who do not fall under the public affairs label.

The headline is that the federal government spends $1 billion annually on public affairs work and spends $500 million on salaries.

The bottom-line is that the federal public affairs effort is fragmented, uncoordinated, and hopelessly outgunned by the private sector. There are agencies with the funds to do a reasonable job of communicating, but beyond DOD and the Census, there are few (the CDC is a personal favorite) doing extraordinary work; they neither have the personnel or funds to engage in cutting edge public outreach.

Note that polling data suggests that public perception of most federal agencies is currently at an all-time low.

While there is criticism of federal public affairs spending, it’s a pittance compared to private sector efforts, thus new cars and hamburgers get significant dollars while veterans affairs, your child’s medical safety, and crime prevention gets a pittance.

General Accounting Office Letter

September 30, 2016

The Honorable Mike Enzi
Committee on the Budget
United States Senate

Public Relations Spending: Reported Data on Related Federal Activities

Dear Mr. Chairman:

With the increased popularity and accessibility of expanded media platforms, the federal government’s ability to publicize information has changed rapidly, but the total scope of federal public relations activities is largely unknown. A number of factors makes it difficult to quantify the resources the federal government devotes to public relations. These factors include the expanded use of web-based platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and the wide variety of activities that could be considered public relations, from publicizing health and safety bulletins to
providing information on federal entitlements and benefits.

Given the changing media landscape, you requested that we determine how much the federal government spends on public relations activities, including contracts and internal agency support, and identify the highest-spending agencies. This report examines: (1) the reported federal spending on contracts for advertising and public relations activities from fiscal year 2006 through 2015, including the agencies that have spent the most; and (2) the reported number of federal public relations employees and their combined annual salaries from fiscal years 2006 through 2014, and the agencies reported to have the highest total salaries for public relations employees.

To address our first objective, we analyzed data from the Federal Procurement Data System –Next Generation (FPDS-NG) database for fiscal years 2006 through 2015. The FPDS-NG database captures information on the federal government’s contract awards and obligations. It includes data for most federal contracts that have an estimated value of $3,000 or more. We
reviewed obligations data for contracts coded under the “support – management: public relations” and “support – management: advertising” product service codes. We assessed the
reliability of these data by considering known strengths and weaknesses of FPDS-NG data, based on our past work, and looking for obvious errors and inconsistencies in the data. We concluded that they were sufficiently reliable for our purposes, though there are limitations to using them, which we discuss in more detail below.

To address our second objective, we analyzed employee data for fiscal years 2006 through 2014 from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) Statistical Data Mart system. EHRI contains salary data and other information for most federal civilian employees in more than 100 federal agencies. The data we present on the number of employees engaged in public relations activities and their salaries are derived from EHRI data on full-time, permanent, career federal employees classified under the Public Affairs occupational series. We assessed the reliability of EHRI data by considering known strengths and weaknesses of the data, based on our past work and that of OPM, and by looking for obvious errors and inconsistencies in the data. We determined they were sufficiently reliable to present the numbers and total salaries of public relations employees from fiscal years 2006 through 2014. However, there are limitations to using them, as discussed below. We have work underway to further explore these and other issues related to public relations spending and activities.

We conducted this performance audit from February 2016 to September 2016 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence
obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Results in Brief

Federal obligations for advertising and public relations contracts have, on average, been close to $1 billion annually over the past decade, ranging from a low of about $800 million in fiscal
year 2012 to a high of about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2009.

Obligations for these contracts are concentrated among a few agencies, with 10 agencies responsible for 95 percent of these obligations over the past ten years. The Department of Defense (DOD), which is responsible for over 60 percent of total obligations for these contracts, has driven changes in overall spending. Although advertising and public relations contracts data provide an indication of the magnitude of federal spending on public relations activities, they do not capture the full scope of these activities. This is due to several factors. For example, the data we present is based on contracts coded under categories that closely align to public relations, such as “support – management: advertising.” There are other categories that could encompass public relations activities, such as “Signs, Advertising Displays, and Identification Plates,” but we did not use them because public relations activities could not be disaggregated from other activities.

The combined salary amounts for federal public relations employees averaged approximately $430 million from fiscal year 2006 through 2014, reaching nearly $500 million in fiscal year
2014, according to EHRI data. Over this time period the number of federal public relations employees ranged from a low of 4,422 in fiscal year 2006 to a high of 5,238 in fiscal year 2011.

These employees were concentrated among a relatively small number of agencies, but to a lesser extent than contract obligations for advertising and public relations. DOD is the largest
employer of public relations staff; accordingly, DOD public relations employees have the highest combined salaries. Although federal employment data provide an indication of federal employee
resources devoted to public relations, they do not reflect the full scope of these resources. Reasons for this include the likelihood that employees beyond just those classified under the Public Affairs occupational series, which we used in the analysis, are involved in public relations activities.


Agencies may have legitimate interests in communicating with the public regarding their functions, policies, and activities:

•The Department of State provides resources to educators on topics such as diplomacy.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicizes information on the Zika virus.
• The Internal Revenue Service publicizes information on eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
• The Department of Transportation campaigns against distracted driving.
• The Department of Education provides information to people applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
• The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has webcams that allow website visitors to view selected animals.
• The military service components advertise in support of their recruitment missions.
• Agencies publish information on regulations, in part to meet requirements that the public be informed and given an opportunity to provide input.
• The Environmental Protection Agency publishes information on draft environmental impact statements to make the public
aware and allow comment.

In addition to more traditional public relations media such as television and radio, agencies are expanding the use of various media technologies to facilitate communication with the public.
These media technologies include e-mail, websites, blogs, text messaging, and social media such as Facebook. The President and OMB have encouraged this use. For example, an OMB
memorandum provided agencies guidance on using social media and other web-based technology to make government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

Obligations for public relations and advertising contracts are concentrated among a few agencies, some of which have driven the amount of these obligations over the past 10 fiscal

Ten agencies were responsible for 95 percent of the funds obligated towards these contracts over the past 10 years, with DOD responsible for more than half of all obligations.
Both the increase in obligations leading up to fiscal year 2009 and the subsequent decline through fiscal year 2012 were primarily driven by DOD and the Department of Commerce’s
(Commerce) Census Bureau.

Between fiscal year 2006 and 2012, DOD and Commerce were responsible for over two-thirds (68 percent) of total obligations for advertising and public
relations contracts. Thus, changes in these agencies’ obligations also affected overall obligations.  Other agencies that contributed to the decline in contract obligations over this period include the Executive Office of the President’s Office of National Drug Control and Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and its Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Total Salaries of Federal Public Relations Employees Averaged about $430-Total Employee Resources Are Not Known

Federal Public Relations Employment Averaged About 4,900 Employees in Recent Years, with Combined Salaries Approaching $500 Million in Fiscal Year 2014
From fiscal years 2006 through 2014 there were on average approximately 4,900 federal public relations employees, and they consistently made up about 0.3 percent of the total federal
civilian workforce in each year, according to OPM data. DOD is the largest employer of these staff, with on average

DOD is the largest employer of these staff, with on average just over 40 percent of all federal public relations employees between fiscal years 2006 and 2014. The agency was the primary driver of both the increase in employment from fiscal year 2006 through 2011 and the decrease that followed through fiscal year 2014.

For example, between fiscal year 2006 and 2011, overall employment increased by 816 employees (about 18 percent), from 4,422 to 5,238. DOD hired over half (435) of these 816 new employees.


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