Budget savvy: Guess how much the federal government spends per year on public relations

When Uncle Sam is working on your behalf you no doubt want qualified professionals doing a good job at a fair price. And when prying open the taxpayer purse, you’re equally likely to want them to be frugal with your hard earned money. You need to know what sort of job they’re doing and it’s the government’s responsibility to keep you in the loop. I suppose such communications might be considered to fall under the category of “public relations” but releasing budget details and efficiency reports shouldn’t be all the much of a challenge, right? Not int he world of government waste, fraud and abuse, my friends. Washington needs to put a good spin on things to keep the natives from growing too restless and that means hiring some crack PR folks to buff up their image.

How much does that cost you? Hang on to your hats because according to a new GAO report, they’ve been spending an average of $1.5B dollars per year (yes.. that’s billion) on public relations work with the vast majority of that budget being soaked up by a handful of agencies. (Government Executive)

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.

Digging into the full report we find that public relations encompasses a lot of things, much of it falling into the traditional idea of “advertising.” They include a variety of categories such as, “Support – management: advertising” or “Signs, Advertising Displays, and Identification Plates.” But a significant portion of the overall spending simply goes to pay the salaries of the public relations workers who operate these programs. That accounts for roughly half a billion dollars, with the typical PR person earning an average salary fo $90K annually.

So which departments are getting all this money? A quick look at this graph from the report shows that the Department of Defense (and to a lesser extent the Commerce Department) are punching well above their weight class.


You do have to wonder why the DoD would be so high on the list. Does this take into account all of their recruiting efforts? If so that’s an important cause and could certainly cost a lot of money, but it seems as if it would be accounted for in an area other than “public relations.” But then the military runs a lot of ads which basically just seem to promote the important role they play with no overt pitch to sign up new recruits. You’ve probably seen plenty of advertisements like this one. Check it out if only for the production values involved.

That’s a full, two minute long advertisement which is more akin to an exciting scene from a big budget action movie. My background in filmmaking is rather limited, but I can tell you that you don’t put a package like that together cheaply. This is Hollywood level work. But is it just promotional or is it a recruiting tool? There’s a brief screen at the end which gives the Navy’s web site and the 1-800-USA-NAVY phone number so I suppose it could be considered a recruiting pitch. But is this part of the $1.5B PR package discussed in the report?

Now that the numbers have been presented by the GAO we’ll probably wind up with some hearings in congress. When the budget for this sort of work reaches those levels there at least needs to be some sort of public accounting.


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John Sexton 10:00 PM on June 02, 2023