Earlier this month, Metro had some good news to get out.
The Portland-area regional government was turning 100 acres in Happy Valley into the Scouter Mountain Natural Area—a Boy Scout camp and adjacent land Metro bought with $2.2 million from a voter-approved bond measure.
Metro wanted to put a positive spin on how it spent taxpayer money. So Laura Oppenheimer Odom, a former Oregonian reporter who is now a communications coordinator at Metro, penned a flowery May 5 news release.
"You're climbing a steep, narrow road with fir trees swaying overhead and birds chirping about your arrival," Odom wrote. "Thousands of Boy Scouts have made this journey over the years—and soon, so can everybody else."
The story was picked up in an Oregonian news brief and a longer feature in The Clackamas Review. The Review story echoed key points in Metro's release, restating Odom's theme that "many more people will have access."
This was just one example of the work performed by local government PR reps, or "flacks," as they're sometimes called in newsrooms.
There are a lot of them—94 in the Portland area—and their paychecks add up to nearly $7 million a year.
As first reported on wweek.com, these public-relations people work for the City of Portland, Metro, Portland Public Schools, Multnomah County, the Port of Portland, Portland State University, TriMet and Oregon Health & Science University. Their average annual pay is around $74,000.
Our list includes staffers who provide information to reporters and citizens. The biggest PR team belongs to the City of Portland. It spends $2.1 million paying its 28 PR people.
"That's a pretty big price tag," says Mike Lindberg, a Portland city commissioner from 1979 to 1997. He says the city had just 22 spokespeople in 2003. "It's just continually grown," Lindberg says. "If I was mayor, I would take a very hard look."
The City of Seattle employs about three fewer spokespeople than Portland, according to the Seattle mayor's office. But get this: Seattle, which runs its own public utility, has 11,000 employees—nearly twice as many as the City of Portland.
Mayor Sam Adams was not available to comment for this story, said his spokeswoman, Amy Ruiz.
PR people perform valuable functions, and not just by feeding reporters story ideas and emailing quotes to insert in news stories. They blog, write newsletters and run meetings aimed at informing citizens.
OHSU's Lora Cuykendall is the best-paid PR rep in our survey, pulling in $136,500 a year. "I don't think it's a surprise given OHSU's size and the kind of institution that it is," Cuykendall says of her six-figure salary. "We deal with highly complex information.â
(An OHSU representative says the academic health center's PR staff is paid mainly with hospital revenues, not tax money.)
Metro President Tom Hughes defends his agency's $1.8 million budget for PR salaries, second only to Portland's. "We're trying to be as efficient as we can given that we've got a pretty broad group of folks that we have to communicate with," Hughes says.
But Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore says it's legitimate to ask whether spending so much on PR is justified when some governments are slashing services and laying off workers.
"It becomes an issue for the electorate," Moore says.
This month, New York-based journalism nonprofit ProPublica published a report noting that the ranks of public-relations reps have surged by more than 30 percent in private PR agencies—while American newsrooms shrank by about 27 percent in recent years. Many former reporters have moved into PR, including former WW managing news editor Hank Stern, who in April took an $80,000 gig at Multnomah County.
As newspapers shrink, government plays a bigger role informing the public. Jim Middaugh, who makes $132,300 as head spokesman for Metro, hired part-time reporter Nick Christensen at $40,560 a year to publish stories about Metro on the agency's website.
"I wanted to hear from critics and supporters alike," Middaugh says, "and typically press releases don't quote your critics."
On the flip side, smaller newsrooms mean reporters are more dependent than ever on PR people for stories. Consider two recent examples from Metro, where Middaugh heads a team of 26 spokespeople.
On March 22 a PR rep for the Metro-run Oregon Zoo put out a press release about the zoo's effort to save water by fixing leaks in underground pipes. That landed a March 24 online Portland Business Journal article that quoted directly from the news release.
But it's not always that easy. Earlier this year, Middaugh's staff pitched a story to Oregonian reporter Eric Mortenson about efforts to turn the old St. Johns Landfill into a sanctuary for endangered streaked horned larks.
It took several weeks and four or five tries, Middaugh says, until The O finally ran a story March 22. Mortenson referred WW's questions to managing editor Therese Bottomly, who wasn't available to comment.
Middaugh points to such PR successes as evidence his team is worth the money.
"People should look at our performance and critique that," he says, "but I think they need to honor the real costs associated with doing a good job."
The Public Relations Industrial Complex
Download PDF files below for complete lists of PR personnel and salaries from all eight public agencies we surveyed.
1. City of Portland
3. Portland Public Schools
4. Oregon Health & Science University
5. Multnomah County
6. Port of Portland
7. Portland State University
FACT: Agencies surveyed: 8
PR employees: 94*
Total salaries: $6,985,900
Average salary: $74,318
*Includes several part-timers