Concerns over State agencies’ spend on PR ‘training’

Bord na gCon, which attended PAC last month, spent €47,000 on PR advice this year

Concerns have been raised that State agencies are using public money for media coaching before appearances at Oireachtas committees in a bid to avoid straight talking and to instead "manage the message".

Questions were raised after figures revealed high spending on public relations (PR) advice and media training by agencies including Bord na gCon The Irish Greyhound Board and An Garda Síochána.

Bord na gCon has spent almost €50,000 on public relations advice in the first five months of this year, more than twice what it spent in the previous two years combined.

The semi-State agency, which has responsibility for the greyhound industry, attended last month before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about its financial decisions.

They included the sale of it second Dublin track at Harold’s Cross, leading to a protracted dispute with greyhound owners and breeders.

The State-funded agency paid €47,831 for public relations (PR) advice up to the end of May this year, to Casey Communications, a Cork-based firm that specialises in strategic communications and crisis management. It was more than twice the €42,662 total it paid over the previous two years to a number of PR agencies.

It has also emerged that media training costs for members of An Garda Síochána and civilian staff totalled €10,400 in 2015 but jumped dramatically to €92,955 last year. And in the first three months of this year the force spent €18,266 on training, bringing the total since 2015 to €121,621.

Reputation management

The fees were paid to the Communications Clinic, which offers training in reputation management, crisis handling and media appearances.

A number of the force's senior officers have attended the PAC on a number of occasions over a series of Garda controversies, most recently on financial irregularities at the Garda training college in Templemore.

The figures were revealed in a series of parliamentary replies to Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy who asked Cabinet Ministers the amount their departments and the State agencies under their remit spent on outside contracts and third-party PR advice and training in the past three years.

Ms Murphy said she understood the necessity of media training “for good communications with the public” but would be very concerned if the training was aimed at obfuscation at Oireachtas committees.

The Kildare North TD, who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said that if the training “is to avoid talking to us in . . . a straight way, then public money is not being used in the public interest”.

Ms Murphy added: “I’m concerned that it’s more about managing the message rather than being fully transparent with the committee.”

All Government departments and a number of the agencies for which they have responsibility, have their own internal public relations departments.

Detailed reply

Departments that supplied information spent almost €1 million with outside PR and media training firms in the past three years. The Department of Enterprise and Innovation gave the most detailed reply on its spend of €398,119 over the past three years, including €284,524 on a one-year advertising campaign to raise awareness of a range of Government-provided enterprise supports.

The lowest spending department was defence which spent €750 in 2016 on media training.

The Department of Health spent €97,926 in 2015 and 2016. HSE spending figures were not available.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said his department had no PR spend with outside agencies, nor did the Department of Housing according to its Minister, Eoghan Murphy, although a number of agencies under his department's remit have yet to file information.

Twelve state agencies for which information has been provided to date, spent just over €1.57 million on PR and media training services. The Road Safety Authority spent €552,876.11 since 2014, mainly on road safety-related campaign launches. The Courts Service spent €370,852.74 on media services in the past three years, while Tourism Ireland, which represents tourism in the State and the North, spent €137,000.

SPENDING ON PR AND MEDIA SERVICES BY GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS:

Enterprise: €398,119

Public Expenditure and Reform: €13,000

OPW: €58,250

Education and Skills: €126,550

Foreign Affairs and Trade: €11,418

Justice and Equality: €26,427

Health: €97,920

Agriculture: €4,700

Communications, Climate Action and Environment: €118,000

Transport, Tourism and Sport: €97,226.18

Children and Youth Affairs: €23,505

Social Protection: €15,083

Defence: €750

Taoiseach: no PR or media spend on outside agencies

Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government: no PR or media spend on outside agencies

Finance: information not available

Arts: information not available

TOTAL: €990,948.18

SPENDING ON PR AND MEDIA SERVICES BY STATE AGENCIES

Bord na gCon: €90,493

An Garda Síochána: €121,621

Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission: €3,683

Courts Service: €370,852.74

Ombudsman for Children: €127,012

Tourism Ireland: €137,000

Road Safety Authority: €552,876.11

Local Government Management Agency: €90,090.13

Pensions Authority: €6,543.60

Commission for Railway Regulation: €31,825

Public Appointments Service: €37,760

National Milk Agency: €3,066.94

TOTAL: €1,572,823.52