Pentagon

The Pentagon Accounts for More Than Half of the Federal Government's $1 Billion PR Budget

More than 5,000 people work in the federal government's PR machines; more than at the Department of Education.

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Selling foreign interventions and stoking the fires of patriotism isn't always easy work, but the federal government thinks someone has to do it.

That someone—or, rather, those someones—are the employees and contractors of the Department of Defense's public relations machine, easily the largest and most expensive PR operation within the United States government.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office reveals that the federal government spends more than $1 billion annually on public relations and advertising—that includes everything from press releases and safety bulletins to television ads for Obamacare, direct mailers about the importance of getting flu shots and endless streams of tweets and Facebook posts intended to connect the average American with their government.

Every department and agency in the government does it, but no one does it as much as the Department of Defense.

The Pentagon accounted for 60 percent of all public relations spending between 2006 and 2015, the GAO found, and it employs about 40 percent of the more than 5,000 public relations workers in the federal government.

For context: there are only 4,500 employees in the U.S. Department of Education.

"It is crucial to know how much is spent across the federal government on public relations activities and which federal agencies are spending the most," said U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Budget and requested the study from the GAO, in a statement.

No other department comes close to what the Pentagon spends.

Source: Government Accountability Office

The second highest average over the 10 year period examined by the GAO belongs to the Department of Health and Human Services (which is responsible for some of those cringe-worthy pro-Obamacare ads). While HHS has spent an average of $116 million annually between 2006 and 2015, the Department of Defense spent more than $626 million annually.

In every year during that 10 year period, the Department of Defense spent more money on public relations than all other departments of the federal government combined. In some years—like 2008 when the Pentagon spent $868 million on public relations—it accounted for more than two-thirds of all taxpayer-funded advertising in the federal government.

To be fair, the Department of Defense's PR team has a tough job. They have to sell the American public on the value of foreign military interventions (something most Americans generally oppose) and have to spin the bombings of hospitals and the droning of innocent civilians at wedding parties as being in the best interest of America's defense—or at least as something other than war crimes.

Reason sent inquiries to the Pentagon's press office seeking an explanation for why the Department of Defense requires a public relations budget that is so much larger than other parts of the government, and asking how the department measures the success of its public relations efforts.

We have not received a response, but we will update this article to include it if we do.

Source: Government Accountability Office

The GAO report gives the overview, but it doesn't get into the details of how the Pentagon spends all that money.

For example, the report does not make clear whether the Pentagon's history of spending taxpayer money on patriotic displays at professional sporting events was included in the annual public relations budget, though it seems reasonable to assume that it would be.

The Pentagon spent more than $53 million over four years on marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams for pro-military displays during NFL games, NASCAR races and hundreds of other sporting events, according to a report released last year by U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, and John McCain, R-Arizona.

"Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride, which many are, rather than taxpayer-funded DOD marketing gimmicks," the senators said.

The Pentagon also contracts with former military officials who appear frequently on cable news programs as supposed "experts" on foreign policy and military strategy. Often, those former military men and women are working for defense contractors—meaning their employers have a direct financial interest in American interventionism—but those conflicts of interest are not disclosed to TV network or to viewers, a New York Times investigation found.

Still, propping up fake experts on CNN pales in comparison to the bizarre tale of how the CIA (not technically part of the Pentagon but still part of the overall U.S. national security apparatus) invented a policy expert out of whole cloth. The fictional expert was a man named Guy Sims Fitch, whose by-line appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of foreign newspapers during the Cold War pushing a pro-American message. Gizmodo's Matt Novak uncovered some of the details about Fitch, but the CIA denied FOIA requests about Fitch, citing a need to protect a fictional person's privacy.

The incident makes you wonder if there's any limit to what the government will do to sell it's message. The new GAO report makes clear that money is no object (and that's one more reason why Congress should consider cutting the Pentagon's budget).

A few other takeaways from the GAO report:

  • While the DOD unquestionably spends the most money on public relations, it's the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that spends the highest percentage of its budget on selling ideas to the American public. Since being launched in 2011, the CFPB has spent an average of $4.2 million annually on advertising, equal to about 0.8 percent of the agency's total budget.
  • The GAO reports that the government spent an average of $1 billion annually on advertising and public relations contracts between 2006 and 2015. Spending ranged from a low of $800 million in 2012 to a high of more than $1.3 billion in 2009.
  • The approximately 5,000 public relations employees in the federal government accounts for less than 1 percent of all federal workers. Their combined annual salary of $475 million in 2015 accounted for just 0.02 percent of all federal employees' salaries that year.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs saw the largest increase in public relations spending and staffers during the past decade (likely in response to media attention on a multitude of problems at VA hospitals). In 2014, the VA had 286 public relations employees, up from just 144 in 2006.

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44 responses to “The Pentagon Accounts for More Than Half of the Federal Government's $1 Billion PR Budget

  1. You know who else spent a lot of money on public relations…

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    1. Brigham Young?

    2. Barbra Streisand?

    3. Gaius Gracchus?

    4. Jack Bybee?

    5. R. Budd Dwyer?

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    6. Antonio Cromartie?

  2. Why does a government agency even need PR? It’s not like their customers have the option to take their business elsewhere if they get bad press.

    1. Hey, those “Global Force for Good” commercials aren’t going to make themselves!

    2. Their customers may not be able to bolt, but the vendors providing raw material (or as Creech below calls them – cannon fodder) can. Part of the reason for the PR budget may be to sell the military to potential recruits. That’s the price we pay for not having a draft. If that’s the case it’s a price worth paying.

      1. ^This is what I came here to say.

        An all volunteer force is expensive.

        We of course, don’t spend the money very wisely, *cough*Nascar*cough* but it still money better spent than most things our government does with it.

    3. Why does a government agency even need PR?

      Because what is the point of being a czar if one can’t tell the world how important one is? We have a few hundred that need ego feeding

  3. Wait, we could fire the whole Dept of Education and only piss of 4500 federal employees and their families?

    1. Why are you opposed to education?! Why do you HATE THE CHILDREN??!!11!!

      1. BRETT L WOULD KILL 4,500 US JOBS!

        1. I’m sure their HRT/SWAT teams could quickly find employment at other government agencies.

  4. Does the DOD pr spending include the cost of recruiting new cannon fodder?

    1. How else do you think they get cannon fodder to join up?

      PR spending on that and weapons system videos and pamphlets. The weapons that we sell to be used against us in the future and to prop up tyrannies, are not going to sell themselves.

  5. The article was reasonably well written, but then it get’s to this part:

    “To be fair, the Department of Defense’s PR team has a tough job. They have to sell the American public on the value of foreign military interventions (something most Americans generally oppose) and have to spin the bombings of hospitals and the droning of innocent civilians at wedding parties as being in the best interest of America’s defense?or at least as something other than war crimes.”

    First, those are both examples of political decisions made by the Executive Branch. Second, it just sounds like someone who hates the military got a chance to write a hit piece on the military. Reason makes itself look less credible by posting such obvious hit pieces.

    1. A good reason to cut the defense budget by 40% in my view.

    2. those are both examples of political decisions made by the Executive Branch

      Which will not make those decisions unless there’s a positive public sentiment. Marketing differs from sales in that its goal is to create the desire.

  6. That someone?or, rather, those someones?are the employees and contractors of the Department of Defense’s public relations machine, easily the largest and most expensive PR operation within the United States government.

    All those Yemeni funeral-goers getting robot murdered aren’t going to spin themselves, you know.

  7. or at least as something other than war crimes.

    We’ve redefined war crimes as those awful acts committed by white male non-Democrats. That solves that problem.

  8. I worked the DOD back in the 1980’s. I’ll just put this out here.because I don’t think most people have a practical grasp of what you can buy with a huge sum of money.

    A Ticonderoga class Cruiser, at the time, cost about $1,000,000,000. One billion.

    The US Navy offers tours on some of their ships. It’s worth going on one. You step off the dock and plant your feet on something that King Tut couldn’t buy.. Much our wealth doesn’t have such an overt physical presence..

    1. That is nothing. Tour a modern aircraft carrier. It costs billions to build, millions/billions to maintain and has millions/billions of equipment/weapons over its life.

  9. They should use the PR money to actually complete a certifiable audit of the DoD and where it spends money. Until you can do that, I don’t want to hear how fucking great you think the US military is.

  10. Wouldn’t PR fall under Department of Education?

  11. The fact that any part of the government has a PR budget is fairly disgusting — People have the right to pay for their own brainwashing as they see fit. Personnel recruiting likely requires some expenditure — all the moreso for dangerous and unpleasant jobs like many of those in the armed forces, but it’s difficult to imagine that alone adding up to $1 billion.

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  13. This article is a little bit misleading because the Department of Defense relies on an all volunteer force. So they must spend a lot of money on PR and advertising to attract qualified enlistees and officers. In my 20 years of service in the Army, I spent a 39 month tour of duty as a recruiter. This is where I realized that the military must spend a lot of money on PR in order to attract the most qualified recruits. Its frightening these days to realize that half of the age 17-35 population doesn’t qualify physically for military service and half of that 50% don’t qualify mentally, so you’re down to a very low 25% of the age 17-35 population that actually can join the military. PR is huge for the DoD in order to compete with other employers for the 25% of the age 17-35 population that qualifies for military service.

    1. This was my assumption. The DoD needs to convince people to risk life and limb for very little pay. I’d say that is a pretty steep PR challenge.

      Also, if they include displays like flybys and air shows, I can see how the money adds up quickly. The number they attach to these events is really big, even though there is almost no incremental cost. They’d be flying anyway. The recruiters would be recruiting anyway. etc.

    2. People who are qualified do not want to join because the US Military is going downhill even more than years past. The DoD just announced that the US navy rate system will end.

      You end tradition. You end espirit de corps. You end benefits for service. You end the high morals of being an American service member. Your country ends.

      I am not talking about changing how a uniform looks. I am talking about forcing the military to do things because they are political only or because of SJWs. I would never serve today, if I was a young buck again. The Navy was changing for the worse when I was in and senior officers are chickshits for not sticking up for their enlisted folks.

      I say cut the defense budget by 50% and force the DoD to explain why it will spend money on things that do not make America safe. Cut Congressman’s salaries by 50% too, as a start.

    3. Societal influencers such as the USDA food pyramid and the department of education physical education standards are a large paet of this problem on the macro level.

      In my own experience, following the USDA recommendations (which the military also pushes) kept me hormonially imbalanced and obese. It took many years of experimenting and yo-yo dieting to figure out that fact. As for lifestyle and the lack of physical activity, as a desk bound civil engineer I am still struggling with that. These issues are my own problems and I accept the consequences of my actions, but it is easy for me to see at the macro level how these government funded societal influencers are doing themselves a disservice by promoting an environment counter to thier own goals.

      If we are to have these organizations, they should not promote things counter to the greater good.

  14. Why was the word.propaganda avoided?

    1. Propaganda denotes untruths. Everything the USA puts out is true- all true!

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