On Aug. 8, Sacramento-based Greenbaum Public Relations won a $1.5 million contract to handle P.R. duties for the California Department of Conservation's beverage container recycling program.

For Stuart Greenbaum's six-person firm, it was a great and crucial victory. To local P.R. executives, it was a dirty fix.

In the small and incestuous world of public affairs marketing, where the players commonly jump from the public to the private sectors to use their influence in the halls of government, there is one nearly universal complaint: It doesn't matter how good you are, it just matters who you know.

A concerted effort goes into ensuring that government contracts are awarded in a fair and impartial way. Public relations contracts have time limits, and when they expire, the government agency involved must put out a request for proposals (RFP) advertising the job to all eligible parties even if the agency was perfectly happy with the incumbent.

This is supposed to ensure that the best possible contractor always gets the job, and that undue influence is not being wielded by a small group of well-connected private firms. Few insiders believe it really works that way.

Perhaps because of the size of the bureaucracy, state contracts are seen as the most likely to be "wired" that is, awarded more on the basis of relationships between state officials and private-sector executives than on the quality of the work.

In recent years, state legislators have become more concerned about public accountability, and as a result the RFP process has become more onerous. In other words, a prospective contractor faces an ever increasing array of documents to apply for a job.

"It's almost a rule of thumb now that the thicker the RFP, the more the administrative gobbledygook, the more likely it is that a decision will be made based on relationships," said John Stodder, director of California public affairs at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.

Complying with state RFP requirements is an agonizing and time-consuming process. P.R. executives spend weeks putting together thick binders full of examples of past work, graphic elements, and details of how the agency would approach the given contract.

"Why put everybody through this based on the illusion that there's an opportunity out there, when in fact there isn't?" Stodder asks.

He isn't alone. Joseph Cerrell, chairman of public affairs P.R. firm Cerrell Associates Inc., says he all but stopped pursuing state contracts years ago because he didn't think the selection process was objective.


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