Counties outsourcing public relations work despite having own staffs

10:00 PM PST on Sunday, November 16, 2008
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside and San Bernardino counties have spent millions of dollars on outside public-relations and marketing in the past two years, even though many county departments and agencies have in-house communication staff, records show.

County officials say the contracts are needed because specialized expertise is often warranted to help tell residents of new programs and services.

But they said with declining revenues and cuts on the horizon, the outside work will receive additional scrutiny.

"I think any type of spending will be tougher to get by the Board of Supervisors," San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said.

San Bernardino County has spent $2 million on public relations and marketing since July 1, 2006, the start of the 2007 fiscal year. Grant money paid about half of the county's total, Wert said.

Riverside County has spent at least $1.1 million on similar work since Jan. 1, 2007, records show.

"The in-house staff is available for various kinds of things. That staff often has to work on day-to-day tasks," Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith said.

The contracts are needed for larger marketing campaigns, he said.

"These are special projects, outreach campaigns, letting people know about the kinds of things the county is doing."

Two of the largest single contracts in Riverside County went to San Diego-based firm Cook & Schmid for $161,882 and to Riverside-based O'Reilly Public Relations for $150,000.

The county hired Cook & Schmid to develop a program to inform residents of the services available for the homeless, Smith said.

Other outside public relations, advertising and marketing work went to other companies, such as Riverside-based CQ Media Group. The company earned about $16,000 since the start of 2007 to handle writing and editing of annual reports and newsletters.

Cook & Schmid and O'Reilly also have contracts with San Bernardino County.

Cook & Schmid handled communication on the county's program to inform mountain residents of ways to make their communities safer from the threat of wildfire.

But the county also hired the firm in March for two years for a cost of $596,200 to and in April for $325,000. The April contract went to help in voter outreach efforts, and a federal Help America Vote Act grant covered the costs, records show.

San Bernardino County hired O'Reilly Public Relations in March under a two-year contract for $167,260.

"Sometimes we need more resources than are available to us," Wert said.

Smith said the companies have more expertise in buying advertising on radio, television and print and in providing advice on which media to use.

Both counties are facing increasing financial pressure. Property tax revenues are declining, forcing officials to make drastic cuts in department budgets.

"In this kind of climate, everything is going to be considered very closely," Smith said.

He said he couldn't say whether the county would no longer use outside consultants.

"I can't tell you this will stop or that will stop," he said. "As with everything the county does, there will be extra scrutiny."

Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or dgang@PE.com

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