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Monday, July 18, 2005
Public Relations Campaign for Research Office at E.P.A. Includes Ghostwriting Articles
The New York Times
By FELICITY BARRINGER
Published: July 18, 2005
WASHINGTON, July 17 - The Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking outside public relations consultants, to be paid up to $5 million over five years, to polish its Web site, organize focus groups on how to buff the office's image and ghostwrite articles "for publication in scholarly journals and magazines."
The strategy, laid out in a May 26 exploratory proposal notice and further defined in two recently awarded public relations contracts totaling $150,000, includes writing and placing "good stories" about the E.P.A.'s research office in consumer and trade publications.
The contracts were awarded just months after the Bush administration came under scrutiny for its public relations policies. In some cases payments were made to columnists, including Armstrong Williams, who promoted the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind and received an undisclosed $240,000. In January, President Bush publicly abandoned this practice.The governmentwide public relations strategies, however, continue to include the preparation of TV-ready news reports on government policies.
An E.P.A. spokeswoman said over the weekend that the effort to raise the profile of the agency's research had a worthwhile goal: calling attention to the work of 1,900 scientists and staff members. Noting that the office's annual budget is $600 million, the spokeswoman, Eryn Witcher, said, "We would like to use less than 1 percent of that to make information accessible to the public."Three similar contracts - one of which was abandoned, the agency said - and the broader $5 million proposal were provided to The New York Times by the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Its director, Jeff Ruch, said he had received them from an agency employee who believed that research money was being inappropriately diverted to a public relations campaign."The idea that they would take limited science dollars and spend them on P.R. is not only ill advised, it's just plain stupid," Mr. Ruch said in an interview.Ms. Witcher responded: "It's not spending money on communications at the expense of research but rather in support of it. This allows the results of E.P.A. research to be shared with the general public."While the scope of the exploratory proposal is new, Ms. Witcher said, the two smaller contracts "are standard. It's standard to get more help with skills that folks don't have. It's very common throughout the entire federal government."One of the smaller contracts asks the contractor to "develop feature article research and strategy" and to "write the strategy to support a new unit that will be identifying feature story ideas, creating slant, identifying consumer magazines to target and polishing the final article."That contract, for feature articles, was awarded to JDG Communications of Falls Church, Va., for $65,692.62, Ms. Witcher said.
The second smaller contract was also awarded to JDG Communications, for $85,829.06. It calls on the contractor to develop two "perception specific indicators" that "must show whether public relations efforts to create awareness and improve the reputation of E.P.A.'s research and development, its labs and its top-quality scientists has favorably influenced public perception."The more extensive and expensive plan seeks help from public relations agencies to, among other things, "provide research, writing and editing of Office of Research and Development articles for publications in scholarly journals and magazines."
Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science magazine and a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a telephone interview on Saturday that he found the idea of public relations firms ghostwriting for government scientists "appalling."
"If we knew that it had been written by someone who was not a scientist and submitted as though it were the work of a scientist, we wouldn't take it," Mr. Kennedy said. "But it's conceivable that we wouldn't know, if it was carefully constructed."He added that the practice of putting public relations polish on scientific work has already been practiced by industry. "We had seen it coming in the pharmaceutical industry and were sort of wary about it," he said. "The idea that a government agency would feel the necessity to do this is doubly troubling."Speaking of ghostwriting, Mr. Kennedy said: "If the ghostwriting is the kind of ghostwriting that most of the good mentors I knew did with Ph.D. students on first paper, it could be a good thing. But I sincerely doubt if any for-profit P.R. firm hired in the interest of improving a scientific publication is going to be the right person to do that."
The contract for assessing the office's image states that the public relations research data "will also be used to show E.P.A.'s relative position with its competitors." The contract's list of competitors included the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, private industry and academia.Mr. Ruch, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, suggested that the notion of a government science agency having competitors might reflect an increasing push across the government to solicit outside support, often from industry, for federal scientific research.
But Ms. Witcher of the environmental agency rejected that hypothesis, saying that the other federal agencies mentioned in that contract were not thought of as competitors. "They are looking at other federal agencies that also do science and research to see how they are communicating to the public," she said.As for the issue of ghostwriting for journals, she said:
"Nothing's been done. Nothing's been awarded. What they envisioned is looking at this very technical" material presented by scientists and making it accessible to laymen. The ghostwriters, should they ever be hired, she said, "can't make up the material. They are taking scientists' work and making it more understandable."
[--isn't this part of our job, as publicists, as writers(?)]