Portland's Taxpayer-Funded PR Industrial Complex

We know times are tough for government agencies. They're cutting services—and sometimes trying to raise taxes—because of the recession. But a study by WW reveals there's one sector of government that seems to be not only surviving, but thriving: public relations.

Public agencies of all kinds have communication offices that employ squadrons of spokespeople who sometimes outnumber the reporters covering them. And they're playing a more important part than ever. Journalists depend on these PR offices—and as news organizations shrink, they play a bigger role providing the public with information and framing the stories that media tell.

Just how many government PR people are out there, and at what cost? To find out, WW sent public records requests to seven local agencies asking how many communications staffers they employ—and how much they're paid.

We journalists deal with these reps on a regular basis. But at a time when the City of Portland doesn't pave streets and Multnomah County can't replace the Sellwood Bridge, the answers we got back astonished us.

We looked at the biggest local public agencies in the Portland area—the City of Portland, Metro, Multnomah County, Portland Public Schools, Oregon Health & Science University, TriMet and Portland State University.  All told, they have a total of 84 PR reps on the public payroll. Together, they make a combined yearly salary of more than $6.2 million. That's an average of more than $75,000, taking into account several part-timers.

The total includes only people whose major job duties are dealing with the press and otherwise providing information to the public—those that we in the journalism industry call "flacks." It does not count the legions of graphic artists, web designers, IT managers and personal assistants who help them.

At $132,300, Jim Middaugh of Metro is one of the highest-paid PR reps in the public agencies we surveyed. Metro, the area's regional government, spends about $1.8 million a year on 26 PR personnel. Middaught calls it an investment in quality government.

"How do you effectively engage people in decisions that affect their communities? To do it well requires a significant investment," Middaugh says. "We're ahead of other regions because we work together."

PR people perform valuable functions, and not just by feeding reporters information. They answer citizens' questions, fill requests for public records and do community outreach—not to mention keeping up with the more modern demands of Twitter, blogging and Facebook.

"It's very difficult to handle that load," says Scott Gallagher, a spokesman for Portland State University who makes $69,996.

The city of Portland spends more on PR salaries—$2.1 million—than any other local public agency. The city also has the highest number of communications people among the agencies we surveyed: 28.

"The communications professionals within our portfolio provide many valuable services, utilizing every available medium to share information about bureau operations and projects, upcoming events and opportunities for public engagement with Portlanders across the city," Amy Ruiz, spokeswoman for mayor Sam Adams, said in an email to WW.

"Several also provide real-time information during emergency events—at any hour of the day or night."

Yet this robust industry of PR agents exists at a time when their traditional counterbalance, the news media, is struggling to survive.

This month, the New York-based journalism nonprofit ProPublica published a report about the staggering growth of the public-relations industry. They found that the ranks of PR reps have surged by more than 30 percent in private public-relations agencies alone. At the same time, ProPublica noted, American newsroom employment shrank by about 27 percent in recent years.

Many former reporters have moved into the PR industry. One of Gallagher's PR colleagues at PSU, Suzanne Pardington, is a former Oregonian reporter who covered universities. Last month WW managing news editor Hank Stern left the paper for an $80,000 PR job at Multnomah County. And Ruiz herself is a former Portland Mercury reporter.

In the lists we've compiled (see below), we point out some of the ties between government spokespeople and local media.

As we noted above, the City of Portland (PDF) spends the most on PR salaries—almost a third of the total for all the agencies we surveyed. Their highest paid spokesperson, Lt. Robert King of the Police Bureau, pulls in $101,691.

Metro (PDF) comes in second for expenditures and the number of PR employees. For example, zoo spokeswoman Stephanie Cameron makes $95,000.

Portland Public Schools (PDF) takes third place, with nine PR employees who collectively make more than $694,000. Upper-tier salaries there are particularly handsome—Robb Cowie and Lolenzo Poe both make north of $100,000.

Oregon Health & Science University (PDF) comes next, with eight employees collecting more than $660,000 total. OHSU's Lora Cuykendall, the highest-paid spokesperson in our survey, pulls in $136,500 a year. Spokesman Jim Newman ($102,995) says most of their salaries are paid with hospital revenues, not tax money.

Multnomah County (PDF), which has suffered years of budget cuts, has scraped together more than $584,000 to pay its seven full-time spokespeople. Lt. Mary Lindstrand of the sheriff's office tops the list at $103,953.

TriMet (PDF) has been forced to cut service and hike fares.  That agency spends $215,342 on PR salaries, with the communications director, Mary Fetsch, receiving $107,803.

PSU provided WW a list of three PR reps and their salaries. Combined, they make $126,006. But the school has not yet released salaries for all 14 members of the communications department. We'll post a more complete list after it's made available.