Railing About HART PR Expenses

Some members of the Honolulu City Council Budget Committee are questioning the number of public relations people associated with the multibillion-dollar rail project. Budget chairwoman Ann Kobayashi and City Council chairman Ernie Martin asked that an auditor determine whether all the employees are needed, and whether the money being spent for rail transit public relations is justified.

Daniel Grabauskas, executive director of Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), told councilmembers he “is reviewing the contracts, but needs time to determine whether the public relations people are all necessary.”

Of the two responses, the executive director of HART came out as the public relations expert.

First, an auditor does not have the expertise to determine whether the public relations people are necessary.

Second, there is no instrument to measure such an abstract question.

Mr. Grabauskas gave the correct professional answer by delaying any judgments on the question, because in politics delay is a form or denial, and what his side needed was time to put a spin on the question.

How old is public relations? It’s been with us for thousands of years. The record shows that in 50 B.C. Julius Caesar wrote the first campaign biography,

Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The purpose was to convince the Roman people he would be the best head of state. It is a strategy that political candidates use to this day. The difference today is that it has become a part of communication science, the art of getting people to believe things and do things.

Things in the world of public relations didn’t change much until the middle of the 19th century, when a man appeared on the scene and became one of the leading public relations experts in the world, P.T. Barnum. He’s most famous for the establishment of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and for a quote often repeated: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” For a long time, public relations was considered the department that put the best face on disasters.

The next famous name in public relations came in 1918 as Edward Bernay published Crystallizing Public Opinion, in which the first principles of public relations were laid down. First, to interpret the client to the public, which means promoting the client. Second, to interpret the public to the client, which means operating the company in such a way as to gain the approval of the public. Lastly, he stressed the importance of the corporation accepting its social responsibility

A model for today’s public relations expert would be the president’s press secretary or communications director. The idea is simple: If the public perception of your project is incorrect in management’s opinion, then it is the duty of the public relations director to correct it, quickly. If public relations means promoting the client, then the city employees in question are doing a good job. If they are crystallizing public opinion toward public support for the expensive heavy rail system, then the most they could do was call for a poll of likely voters and hope for a favorable response. In the world of “spin,” Grabauskas is worth his weight in gold to supporters of rail. He already has passed his first test and he knows that the City Council’s question was just the first of many tough ones to come.

And remember, there is a election right around the corner, and one very strong candidate for mayor is pro-rail.

Any wonder, then, that the executive director of HART is the highest paid public employee in Hawaii?