By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
MWAA — maligned for much of last year because of insider deals, cronyism and lack of transparency — will pay $90,000 a year for the services of a strategic communications firm to help rehab its tattered image.
In a Request for Proposal released Wednesday, the authority said it would take bids for a year-long contract, awarded to a communications firm with expertise in “high-visibility corporate reputation issues, including reputation rehabilitation and extended media and congressional scrutiny.”
MWAA already has its own media relations department, yet the authority has been the target of continued scrutiny on all fronts — from the media to Virginia and Maryland governors Bob McDonnell and Martin O’Malley, respectively, Washington, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray and outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The criticism centers around lavish spending by board members on official travel, nepotism and ethical violations.
“So the taxpayers get to pay for the in-house public relations staff, and then they get to pay for the public relations staff to help improve the image of MWAA after they voted in ways that totally tarnished their image. Gee, that sounds like a sweetheart operation, doesn’t it?,” said Michael Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a Springfield-based nonpartisan think tank.
An inspector general’s report released in November outlined a litany of problems MWAA has sought to reform. The authority has tried to clean up its act, but more controversy has followed.
In January, former MWAA Vice President George Ellis filed a $10 million defamation suit against the authority regarding allegations made by auditors.
The OIG report found MWAA employees were accepting trips and gifts from a company with a contract, including “Super Bowl tickets, travel and accommodations worth almost $5,000.”
The MWAA looking at crisis management means officials still don’t understand how to address the problems, Thompson said.
“You couldn’t write this in a cheap novel that you would pick up because you are sleeted in at the Atlanta airport,” he said. “They do this stuff and insist they are not going to get caught, now they get caught and what do they do? They are going to pay thousands of dollars for a slick PR firm to try and figure out how to get them out of trouble.”
The contract is scheduled to pay up to $90,000 annually for one year, with an option for three additional years.
Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said if MWAA is looking for outside public relations help, its perception problems are too big to handle independently.
“If they feel like they have got to seek outside crisis management support, then it says they don’t feel like their internal team is giving them what they need,” he said. “I think the bigger issue is they think the problem is the message and not what they are doing. If they think what they are doing is fine and they are just not communicating it well, I think that would be a mistake.”
Chris Paolino, MWAA’s media relations manager, said the proposal request was merely to provide the authority with additional guidance.
“This is just looking to have an outside perspective for the services requested, which are marketing and communications,” he said. “The in-house communications, I think this is laid out in the RFP, will still to do its day-to-day.
“It’s available to the CEO, board chairman and vice president of communications.”
Karen Hult, director of graduate studies at Virginia Tech’s department of political science, said MWAA could face the perception that it would rather use public relations rather than address its underlying issues.
“It seems to me that one can say that they have heard the message, and they are trying to shape up things in-house,” she said. “It’s similar to lots of things we see in Washington, D.C., more generally. To what extent are we crafting things as public relations problems, when in fact they are administrative and governing problems?”
The deadline for submitting bids is April 2.
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