Municipal PR, Chicago Style

December 29, 2008 at 5:21 pm Leave a comment

By Chris Scott

There are 34,264 metered parking spots in Chicago and by 2013, the per hour rate for meters that charge a quarter in 2008 will rise to $2, a 700 percent increase.

Chicago residents know this because Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed that the city follow earlier fundraising strategies and lease control of the city’s parking meters — and the money they collect — to a private company for the next 75 years.

You would think that such a serious issue would be managed through the experienced PR machine in place at City Hall and its departments, with residents and news organizations aware of the bidding process and the proposals. Chicago citizens would then be able to attend Town Hall meetings where residents and business owners could voice their opinions on how such a deal might affect their quality of life in the Second City.

But you would be wrong.

In the space of less than one week of the Mayor’s proposal, drivers who will be forced to pay the higher rates — as much as $6.50 per hour in certain areas like downtown — were told that a City Council committee had passed the proposal and that it would be voted on by the full City Council within two days. And faster that one could say “Get your 26 quarters together!” the $1.15-billion deal was sealed. One bidder, one contract.

It’s not that the infrastructure to get the word out to the press and the public in a timely manner didn’t exist. The city of Chicago spends an estimated $4.7 million each year to pay for 50 public information officers in a variety of city government offices and agencies. Additionally, weeks before the parking meter lease agreement, the Daley administration announced contracts with 10 outside PR firms for services that could net each firm as much as $5 million per year. Those contracts were announced at about the same time that city officials revealed an anticipated $469-million budget gap for fiscal 2009 along with layoffs of 929 city employees and the elimination of 1,346 vacant positions in city government. (A reduction in city services and higher fees for other things like parking tickets also will be implemented to save money in these troubled economic times, the mayor said.)

What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing from at least one perspective. Anyone who engages a PR firm is essentially free to utilize or ignore the vendor’s capabilities or advice as they see fit. If the city believes — as Mayor Daley expressed when questioned about the new contracts — that these relationships with the outside PR firms are necessary, so be it. But don’t the agencies with relationships with City Hall have an obligation to advise the client that it might be a good idea to remove even a whiff of impropriety in the ways “The City That Works” generates an anticipated $1.15 billion in upfront revenue through solid, proven PR strategies (community forums, press conferences, more transparency)?

As it turns out, the city suspended the contracts with the PR firms until the budget crisis “is over.” It’s apparently the same old story: Chicago citizens don’t hear about City Hall decisions in advance. What do you expect from an administration that destroyed a municipal airport’s runways in the dead of night in 2003 with no public relations effort or public comment before the bulldozers rolled? At least City Hall is consistent in how it delivers its message, regardless of the number of agencies it hires to consult on such matters. And that counts for something to taxpayers, doesn’t it?

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Entry filed under: Diabloguer, Marketing Communications, Media Relations, Missteps, Public Relations.

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