If you had asked me which Idaho state agency was most in need of public relations work, the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) wouldn’t have topped the list. In fact, it wouldn’t have made the list at all, which is perhaps the exact reason the IDWR has set aside $100,000—and as much as $250,000—for a public relations and marketing specialist contract.
In May 2017, the IDWR and its auxiliary, the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB), decided to solicit the services of a media guru. They found one in outdoor enthusiast Steve Stuebner, whose public relations firm secured a two-year contract (June 2017 to May 2019) to perform “media and public information services” for the agencies. How much media services could these public entities possibly need? Approximately $50,000 a year worth. The IDWR earmarked $100,000 for Mr. Stuebner, payable upon invoice. The need for media relations is not short-lived: The anticipated contract term is five years, which means the department could dispense up to $250,000 over the extended life of the contract.
Stuebner charges the state $75 an hour, so one hopes to hear that the money is well spent. In the catalog of Stuebner’s time with the department, beginning in June 2017, he lists expenses such as “media relations work,” lodging for travel to interviews and meetings, and outsourcing printing and design work. Stuebner spends around an hour each week compiling media clips, and in September 2017 he studied how other agencies used social media, for social media consulting. Stuebner also researches and writes press releases—he goes to meetings, takes notes, schedules interviews, collects quotes, and revises multiple drafts. Finally, Stuebner wrote, filmed, and edited a video about a recently-negotiated water rights settlement.
These are all legitimate things for a public information consultant to do, but the contract itself raises the question: What public information do the IDWR and IWRB need to distribute that justifies hiring a contractor?
During June 2017, Stuebner’s first month on the IDWR job, he spent the majority of his time writing a single press release on peak flows and spring-flood management. The final price tag for that press release? Around $800, paid from the IDWR flood management budget.
In September 2017, Stuebner also logged around 15 hours of time working on a press release about an Idaho Board of Water Resources meeting, paid from its secondary aquifer fund. Admittedly, the exact time spent can be hard to tell, given the informal nature of the time accounts (and the fact that he sometimes works on multiple projects on a given day). Yet that press release cost Idaho taxpayers more than $1,000.
Prices for a professional press release can range from $125 to $1,500, according to the 2017 Writer’s Market guide. Higher prices are geared toward large businesses that look to make a profit—increased media exposure can lead to more sales, investment, stock value, and ultimately increased revenue. So, paying $1,000 for superior writing and distribution of a single article is perhaps reasonable for companies to whom it’s an investment with a rate of return, rather than simply an expense. Not-for-profit state agencies have no such reason.
Furthermore, if a private company decides to overspend on a press release with a low rate of return, the only thing impacted is its own bottom line. But state-funded agencies are stewards of public money, and thus don’t have such luxury: Money spent on public relations is money taken from Idaho residents that would have been utilized elsewhere.
In the interests of fairness, the IDWR paid for the water rights video from its enforcement fund: money collected from fines rather than from taxpayers. IDWR hopes that because the video highlights the department’s data-gathering abilities, it will be a deterrent to would-be lawbreakers.
Still, the IDWR cut its staff media position in 2010 to save money, and since that time concerns about state overspending haven’t vanished. Maybe the IDWR will remember that it is not, in fact, a private for-profit corporation, and should stop spending like one.