The recent revelation that the Environmental Protection Agency decided to cancel its media monitoring contract with a Republican public affairs firm in the wake of vocal outrage from lawmakers has rattled the PR services industry. Even though the dust has now settled, the incident lingers as a black eye on the EPA and their leadership.
The controversy involved politically-motivated allegations that Virginia-based Definers Public Affairs—a consulting firm offering a variety of PR services such as digital strategy, political consulting and media relations—had been hired to ensure that agency director Scott Pruitt, a “high-profile and consequential Cabinet member,” would retain his post. The firm was then re-enlisted by Pruitt for a lucrative contract—without the due diligence of putting the contract up for bid—and has allegedly spent the past year collecting GOP-skewed results and investigating agency employees who had been critical of the Trump administration.
Although it initially defended the contract, the EPA ultimately terminated its relationship with Definers (the Washington Post reports that firm president Joe Pounder said the decision was mutual). Pounder and Definers founder Matt Rhoades are known GOP operatives, with Pounder having worked for the Republican National Committee and Rhoades providing services for various Republican candidates including Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio—and liberal nonprofit group, Public Citizen, had previously filed a formal complaint on behalf of other monitoring firms, questioning the process the agency used in awarding the contract to Definers.
“Clearly EPA didn’t treat any other vendor seriously,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, according to a New York Times article. “There’s no reason on earth that EPA didn’t at the absolute minimum phone around or email for three competing bids and go with the lowest one.” Previously, the EPA had a similar clip service provided by Bulletin Intelligence, but they and other providers of advanced news clipping services like Agility PR Solutions were not given the opportunity to bid on the contract.
“Definers offered EPA a better and more efficient news clipping service that would give EPA’s employees real-time news at a lower cost than what previous administrations paid for more antiquated clipping services,” Pounder said in an emailed statement, according to the Post article. “But it’s become clear this will become a distraction.”
Many in the industry feel that if the EPA had looked at the solutions out there, they would have seen that a choice between cost and efficiency is no longer required.
“With advances in technology, the cost of delivering media monitoring services has decreased, while the speed, power and control afforded by online tools has grown exponentially. This means we can offer powerful, yet economical monitoring solutions that fit the needs of any organization,” said Dawn Smeaton, Director of Marketing at Agility PR Solutions, a provider of media monitoring tools and services.
Mother Jones first reported on the controversy about the firm, which it said “specializes in digging up opposition research.” The outlet’s coverage asserted that Definers, which managed Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, was hired by the EPA using taxpayer dollars to dig up “opposition research to track and shape press coverage of the agency,” according to its article.
According to the Post report, two Democratic senators, concerned that the contract “worked hard to make sure that Pruitt was approved by the Senate for the EPA administration post,“ voiced concerns to EPA about how the agreement came to be and “urging him to cut ties to the company immediately.” The EPA has defended the contract, saying it “hired the firm merely to act as a sophisticated news clipping service” that offered a discounted rate compared to other clip firms, reports the Post article by Brady Dennis.