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March 3, 2011
Avoiding a Contracting Circus in Kansas City, or Anywhere
 
A crisis communication contract became a crisis itself for a Kansas City, Mo., PR firm as the focus of a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing. Surely, even under crisis pressures this kind of situation can be avoided with careful agreement on a reasonable work plan. Instead, we have this e-mail quote from Jane Mobley of Jane Mobley Associates: "Pls get Jenny and execute asap:-) before it's wake-up time in Korea."

Government Executive.com reports that in late 2009 into 2010, the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) was under pressure from adverse reports about environmental conditions at the 310-acre Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City, which was reportedly "contaminated with toxic substances." Employees interviewed in local news reports "raised questions about environmental conditions at Bannister, including interviews with employees who were experiencing serious health problems. A significant increase in inquiries from the public, local officials and the press soon followed. A protest was staged outside Bannister's child care center." A "pressure cooker" environment was created, Mary Ruwwe, regional commissioner of the Heartland Region at the Public Buildings Service told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight.

A crisis setting, for sure. But not one that arose overnight. And even if it had, given the right priorities it's always possible to agree on a clear set of expectations and deliverables – it has to be. GSA was acting under impressions that workers and their children could be harmed at the Bannister complex, but if public relations services are to be credible, they need to be clearly focused.

Instead, Government Executive reports that "the contract's statement of work was apparently written by the contractor, rather than by the contracting officer, as is typical in federal procurement, according to an audit report by GSA's inspector general. GSA officials said they were under the impression that the statement of work was written by EPA."

Prices from three local PR firms were supposedly considered, but GSA officials evidently spent only a day researching them before selecting the Mobley agency. A one-month contract for nearly $100,000 "was later extended for an additional two months at a cost of $134,000" – $234,000 overall.

At the Senate hearing, "Senior GSA leaders initially insisted the contract was properly conducted. But as the hearing wore on and a number of damaging findings – including the release of private e-mails – were taken up by the subcommittee, officials began singing another tune." Government Executive writes.

"'In a sense of legal culpability, we did nothing wrong or illegal,' said Robert Peck, commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service. "But in hindsight, I admit that mistakes were made. This is an episode for which we learned a couple of lessons."

Let's hope the Kansas City PR community has learned some as well. "Crisis" pressures are supposed to be resisted, not capitalized upon.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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