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New Urgency Sensed as LAWA Steps Up PR Selection Process

New Urgency Sensed as LAWA Steps Up PR Selection Process

By DARRELL SATZMAN

Staff Reporter

Los Angeles World Airports is nearing a decision in its yearlong search for a public relations firm that would be heavily involved in Mayor James Hahn’s $9 billion modernization plan for LAX.

LAWA began accepting bids for outside communications services last September. Fifteen firms submitted applications, and none have been officially eliminated. Indeed, only about half have been interviewed.

Paul Haney, deputy executive director of public and community relations for LAWA, said a decision on hiring an outside firm was likely before the end of the year, but others with knowledge of the process said the decision could be only weeks away.

LAWA has never imposed a deadline for making the hire and so far no agency that applied has withdrawn its application. With the potential of millions of dollars of fees at stake for services ranging from crisis management to a public education campaign the contract retains a lot of appeal in an uncertain economy.

And the process appears to be picking up, with several interviews in the past few weeks.

“This is a much more difficult assignment than any of the communication assignments this mayor has given out,” said Ron Rogers, chief executive of Rogers & Associates, a local firm vying for the contract.

The increased momentum comes as City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes LAX, has led a chorus of critics objecting to the project’s huge price tag, while a study by Rand Corp. questioned whether it would alleviate safety concerns, one of the main objectives.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last month issued a sharp rebuke to Hahn’s plan, which calls for the demolition and rebuilding of terminal buildings, moving runways further apart, and building a passenger check-in center in the Manchester Square area near the San Diego (405) Freeway.

In addition, representatives of some airlines using LAX have complained that the proposal places too steep an economic burden on them.

“It’s unclear what they want to accomplish,” Miscikowski said of the planned public relations effort. “Is this a message of clarity or is it a message of promotion? They shouldn’t be spending any public money promoting a project that is still being discussed in the public domain.”

LAWA has had outside public relations contracts for years, and Hahn spokeswoman Julie Wong said recent criticism of the modernization plan, which was floated after the selection process got underway, had not created any greater urgency in selecting a firm.

But the length of the process could be a sign of divisions within the airport agency, as well as fallout from a politically damaging episode with the airport’s previous PR firm, Encino-based Winner & Associates.

Winner received $9 million from LAWA for public relations work between 1999 and 2001 before abruptly pulling out of its contract. The firm’s president, Charles Winner, had been an active supporter of Hahn’s mayoral campaign, and allegations of political favoritism arose early last year when LAWA agreed to extend Winner’s contract at a time when LAX was facing deep budget cuts.

Winner said at the time that he would no longer bid on airport projects, although the firm’s hat is now back in the ring and it met with LAWA officials last month.

Among the other companies seeking the LAWA contract are Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. Other local firms include Cerrell & Associates Inc., 1124 Design Advertising Inc. and The Agency.

There is no set amount of money budgeted for public relations work on the airport plan, Haney said. Once all the interviews are complete, including an evaluation of potential charges, a spending cap will be recommended, he said. The contract will be awarded for a period of up to three years.

A five-member panel, including Haney, Airport Commission President Ted Stein and Vice President Cheryl Petersen, is conducting interviews. They will make a recommendation on an agency that will go to the seven-member airport commission for a vote.

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