How The Gov’t Anti-Drug PR Review Got Derailed

When the White House issued a solicitation last month for the public relations portion of its anti-drug media campaign, the information was posted in a way that enabled readers to see material they shouldn’t have, such as the contract’s cost: $6 million a year.

Then, for reasons unrelated to the review, a federal judge’s order to shut down the Internet site where the RFQ was posted forced the Office of National Drug Control Policy to withdraw it. The mishaps occurred as ONDCP prepares to issue a solicitation for the creative portion of its $145 million advertising account.

Quite a hubbub for a PR assignment that, for all its high-profile appeal, may all but disappear, as the solicitation posted March 12 said, “This RFQ is being issued subject to the availability of funds.”

The PR portion of ONDCP’s account has long been a thorny issue for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which coordinates pro bono ads by about 40 shops for the effort, because it wants more of the campaign’s budget spent on planning and buying ads and less on other efforts, such as PR and Internet outreach. Its lobbying efforts before Congress on this issue so far have been successful. If the current reauthorization bill pending in Congress is passed, ONDCP would be required to devote 85 percent of its $145 million budget to buying ads.

The Department of the Interior, which manages ONDCP’s PR contract, first posted the “request for quote” on its Web site as a Microsoft Word document. By clicking on Word’s “show” function, readers were able to see an unedited version, which included crossed-out data such as “the [offerer’s] ability to use $6 million/year in the most efficient manner possible.” A section on multicultural outreach also had been crossed out.

Then, on March 16, most of the department’s Internet was shut down for an unrelated reason when a federal judge said it had not fixed security problems involving payments made to Native Americans, which made responding to the RFQ impossible. The RFQ was withdrawn the next day.

“Since our solicitation relied heavily on the use of e-mail by offerers, we felt it was best to withdraw it in order to maintain the integrity of the contract,” said ONDCP rep Tom Riley, who predicted ONDCP likely will extend its current PR contract, held by Omnicom Group’s Fleishman Hillard, here, which expires in June.

When the campaign began in 1998, the PR contract was $10 million for duties that included public education, interactive media, entertainment outreach and corporate outreach. But the PR budget has been cut as ONDCP’s overall budget declined from a high of $195 million to $145 million. ONDCP also has cut $1 million for corporate outreach.

Fleishman’s strategic approaches have included operating a campaign Web site, and media briefings on subjects such as the drug ecstasy, and doping and sports. “It is closing the loop, and it is very cost-effective stuff,” said one source.

Sources said Fleishman is likely to bid again for the business once the RFQ becomes available, which sources said could take another 30 to 45 days. A Fleishman rep declined comment. Funding for PR will depend on when Congress passes a reauthorization bill for the campaign.

Sources said ONDCP has now put the PR RFQ on hold as it works on issuing the creative solicitation, which has become a priority since lead shop Ogilvy & Mather’s contract, which expires Sept. 30, will not be renewed. Sources said ONDCP may issue the creative RFP in the next two weeks.