What others say: Department of Defense overspends on PR efforts

  • Wednesday, November 16, 2016 6:26pm
  • Opinion

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” wrote Edward Bernays, regarded as the “father of public relations,” in his influential 1928 book, “Propaganda.” The U.S. government seems to have taken this message to heart, spending significant resources on public relations efforts.

Federal agencies have spent about $1 billion a year over the past decade on advertising and public relations, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Even this figure likely understates the actual costs, the GAO notes, due to imprecise budget classifications and the difficulty in defining “public relations” activities and personnel.

The Defense Department is responsible for the largest share of public relations activity by far, accounting for 40 percent of all federal public relations personnel and 60 percent of all PR spending. The Department of Veterans Affairs experienced the largest rate of increase in public relations spending during the period, doubling its PR staff from 144 in 2006 to 286 in 2014 (which was, probably not coincidentally, the year the VA hospital negligence and wait time scandal broke).

The government’s public relations services include perfectly legitimate functions, such as providing notice of impending regulations and public comment periods or informing the public about health and safety threats. But when the Health and Human Services Department launches an expensive pro-Obamacare advertising campaign, or the Pentagon tries to spin and influence media coverage of military actions, the question we must continually ask is: When does public information cross the line to propaganda?

A report last year from Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake criticized what they called “paid patriotism,” the practice of the military paying pro and college sports teams to perform on-field flag ceremonies, surprise homecomings, wounded warrior tributes, ceremonial first pitches and the like. “Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride, which many are, rather than taxpayer-funded DoD marketing gimmicks,” they stated.

And a 2008 New York Times investigation revealed that the retired military officers who serve as “military analysts” on many news programs oftentimes parroted administration talking points in exchange for special briefings and access to administration officials, which many of them used to advance their own business interests by pursuing government defense contracts.

As Reason Magazine’s Eric Boehm argued in a pointed criticism, “To be fair, the Department of Defense’s PR team has a tough job. They have to sell the American public on the value of foreign military interventions (something most Americans generally oppose) and have to spin the bombings of hospitals and the droning of innocent civilians at wedding parties as being in the best interest of America’s defense — or at least as something other than war crimes.”

It is bad enough that the government spends our own money in ways with which many taxpayers would disagree, but it is a double slap in the face when it uses those hard-earned dollars to pat itself on the back for these infringements or tries to manipulate our opinions and behavior.

— The Orange County Register, Nov. 16, 2016

More in Opinion

Nurse Sherra Pritchard gives Madyson Knudsen a bandage at the Kenai Public Health Center after the 10-year-old received her first COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska Voices: A mom’s and pediatrician’s perspective on COVID-19 vaccines for children

I want to see children and their parents who have yet to get vaccinated roll up their sleeves.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: The foolish men claiming self-defense

It’s not just misguided teenagers carrying guns who find themselves in trouble with the law.

Larry Persily (Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: State defends its right to cut nonexistent taxes

This from a state that has no property tax on homes or businesses, only on the oil industry.

Dr. Jay Butler, former chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Feeling grateful this Thanksgiving for the COVID vaccines

The COVID vaccines remain our strongest tool in combating the pandemic and helping us return to our lives and the things we love and cherish.

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Voices of the Peninsula: All votes matter

In the beginning, only property-holding white men could vote.

Cristen San Roman. (Photo provided)
Point of View: Is management of Cook Inlet catered to special interest groups?

If these fish are so at risk, why is BOEM able to move forward with lease sale 258?

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Grateful for the hidden ‘good’

Gratitude: Noun The state of being grateful; thankfulness. The state or quality… Continue reading

Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski. (Photo provided)
Point of View: What is Homer High School about?

What I consider Homer High’s strength is that we are a place for learning.

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell. (courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Invent your future at UAA

At UAA we’re providing the tools to help students of all ages and skills chart a new course forward.

A registered nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the pop-up clinic on the Spit on May 27. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Alaska Voices: Vaccination is the still best protection from COVID-19

The Alaska State Medical Association encourages you to protect yourselves and your community from preventable illness by getting recommended vaccines.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
The sad diminishment of Rep. Don Young

Young seems afraid to demand his party leader defend the dignity of the institution he loves.

A “Vote Here” sign is seen at the City of Kenai building on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Clarion file)
Alaska Voices: Restore our strong campaign donation limits

Without campaign spending limits, the ideal of one person, one vote is no longer really true.