PRSA Defends Industry in LAX PR Contract Dispute

Last week brought news of some significant challenges within the Los Angeles wing of the public relations world–and industry groups have begun to take sides.

Los Angeles World Airports, a group that owns and operates three major transport hubs including Los Angeles International/LAX, recently awarded approximately $4 million in contracts to Southern California PR/media firms charged with highlighting the LAX’s ongoing modernization efforts and promoting Los Angeles as a tourist destination. Last week, two politically ambitious members of the city council questioned the value of the investment and demanded a review by the full council (which has the power to overturn contracts awarded by city organizations).

Their issue? The contracts were “awarded without discussion by the Board of Airport Commissioners last week to companies that are not based in Los Angeles”. Of course the firms in question aren’t particularly happy about the possibility that they could lose these crucial contracts.

The Public Relations Society of America‘s Los Angeles chapter made its position clear over the weekend by stepping into the fray and writing a letter to the city council officially supporting the three firms involved–and the PR business at large.

Since the vast majority of voters approve of the airport’s modernization efforts, we assume they would also support campaigns designed to highlight the project. But Dennis Zine, a former police officer running for city controller, framed the debate as an issue of government accountability, saying that the city should not “be spending about $4 million on public relations for the airport” and that any contracts awarded should be limited to companies based within the city itself. Councilman Bill Rosendahl elaborated on this point, stressing the importance of transparency at a time when “Confidence in government is at an all-time low.”

The back-and-forth intensified after Zine’s initial statements. In response, the airport group asserted that the contracts are necessary because LAX itself does not have the staff or expertise to create its own campaigns and that the contracts were awarded via “a competitive process that included bids from companies based in Los Angeles.”

According to the letter signed on Saturday, the PRSA understands why “questions may be raised about the necessity of PR for government work” but sees this debate as another important opportunity to correct misconceptions about the business at large, explain why campaigns like the LAX modernization demand trained, dedicated communications specialists who can help “build relationships between organizations and the public” and to “demonstrate the significant positive impact that the public relations profession has on the local economy”. The letter urges the council to review the contracts on their individual merits rather than using them as an opportunity for political grandstanding at the expense of the Southern California economy, noting that PR “plays a vital role in the day-to-day operations of local government and public agencies.”

The letter  also mentions a 2010 study finding that the PR industry brings approximately $500 million into the Los Angeles economy each year, creating high-quality jobs and helping the city maintain its public image.

What do we think? Will the PRSA’s message resonate with the general public? And do we see this showdown as a sign of future tensions between city governments and PR firms, or is it a classic example of a local politician desperate for attention?