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Editorial: Media Management; Squandered Money in Vermont

What follows should definitely be categorized as “generally negative.” We say that not to warn off Pollyannish readers or entice nattering nabobs, but rather out of hope that we can spare a consulting firm hired by the state of Vermont the trouble of wasting more time and taxpayer money analyzing media content.

That firm, Washington, D.C.-based GMMB Inc., has landed state contracts that could eventually earn it $2.8 million to help the Shumlin administration conduct a public relations campaign on behalf of Vermont Health Connect, the state insurance exchange that residents can use to shop for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

That a public information effort is both necessary and desirable is indisputable. Because of the health care law’s complexity, importance and controversial nature, accurate and timely information is crucial. It is equally indisputable that a sizable chunk of money spent on services provided by GMMB has been completely wasted.

The firm has been hired not simply to inform the public about Vermont Health Connect but also to promote it — to “control the narrative,” to use the reigning cliche. This is hardly unheard of. When the government undertakes a major effort to, say, get Americans to eat their peas, it has become standard to not simply convince people of the benefits of eating peas but also to convince them that the pea-eating effort is going swimmingly and that the ranks of contented pea-eaters are swelling. This feel-good aura presumably aids the pea-eating effort and, not coincidentally, reflects well on those who decided that pushing peas made sense.

Thanks to the enterprising reporting of Peter Hirschfeld of the Vermont Press Bureau, we now know that a major component of the GMMB contract entailed an “earned media campaign” — “earned media” being consultant-speak for publicity that doesn’t have to be paid for. Translated into English, it means that GMMB was paid to do what it could to get favorable coverage in newspapers, television, radio, online and social media. “It is important to showcase the current building blocks as Vermont Health Connect grows, keep the public informed about what is happening and share stories that showcase success,” GMMB advises in its Earned Media Strategy.

That strategy is but one of more than a dozen components in what amounts to the $452,594 total the state agreed to pay GMMB for such things as an assessment of the media landscape, a “communications waves” strategy, spokesperson training material, a media list and editorial board meeting material.

Hirschfeld’s story highlighted the creepier aspect of this effort, which was a compilation of various news reports between September 2012 and March 2013 about the rollout of Vermont Health Connect with a summary given of each story and an assessment of its tone (“generally positive,” “generally negative” or “generally neutral.”) It will come as no surprise that, for example, a story in VTDigger that looked at the impact of reductions in insurance subsidies on low-income residents fell in the “generally negative” category. But what’s truly disturbing about the media-tracking is not its creepiness but its sheer worthlessness. For example, the three “key takeaways” gleaned from the seven months of media tracking were: 1. Coverage increased as the state got closer to launching the exchange; 2. Detractors were “active” in the “opinion space”; and 3. Reporting about the exchange was less frequent in smaller newspapers.

This glaring obviousness mirrors much else offered in other components of GMMB’s earned media campaign. Reading step-by-step instructions about how to use shampoo would prove more enlightening than wading through the verbiage of GMMB’s advice and analysis. The opening line to the earned media “strategy” ($15,345, for that particular piece) provides a representative sampling: “Vermonters listen to, rely on and trust their media outlets to provide them with the information they need to make or inform some of their decisions.”

Imagine that. And if you’re guessing that the consultants managed to sprinkle in words such as “proactive,” “relationship-building,” “dialogue” and “stakeholders,” you’ve got a good sense of what the state acquired for just under a half-million dollars provided by the federal government.

Forgive us for wondering whether the state might have spared itself some of the generally negative reporting about the launch of the exchange had it spent less on media strategy and more on the health exchange’s less-than-perfect website. And when it comes to our opinion about the state squandering so much taxpayer money on this media effort, is there any way we could replace the “generally negative” rating with one that was “completely and unmistakably” so? Talk about earned media reaction.