After a surprising debate on the merits of digital outreach, the City Council approved a three year contract with a global firm for strategic communications and outreach services this week totaling $350,000.

“We’re a 650 million dollar operation and we shouldn’t be nickel and diming our communications strategy.” City Manager Rick Cole told Councilmember Sue Himmelrich at Tuesday’s public meeting.

Himmelrich questioned the need for an outside contractor when the City already employs an in-house public relations department. The department is currently working with a team of six people as they search for an additional Public Information Officer to focus on social media.

“When we add all these people, the idea that we need an outside firm in addition to this seems to me to require an explanation,” Himmelrich said. She quoted an email she received from Cole:

“‘We would like to do what’s known as social marketing. This is using creative media to influence public behavior,’” according to the email.

“Well, you know what, we should be influencing public behavior but not by using this marketing firm, but by the actions we take every two weeks in this chamber,” Himmelrich added, “by what we do in terms of going out in the community and interacting with people.”

The Mayor, who suggested the two continue their conversation outside City Council Chambers, cut off the contentious debate.

The City’s budget has recently become a hot button issue in Santa Monica. A healthy economy and thriving tourism industry has boosted revenue and allowed for a robust city payroll, however, the city’s finance director recently warned the future looks more bleak. The current period of economic expansion is one of the longest without a recession on record, leaving economists worried the country could be in store for a downturn. Himmelrich serves on an Audit Subcommittee that regularly looks at the City’s finances.

She was not the only Councilmember to vote against hiring GOOD Worldwide Inc, a Los Angeles-based firm that worked on the GoSaMo public transportation campaign. Councilmember Tony Vazquez expressed disappointment GOOD was chosen over a competing firm that better aligned with the City’s diversity goals.

“We keep talking a big game about being inclusive and giving more opportunities to minority owned businesses, yet when they get to the top level we seem to go against the grain,” Vazquez said.

The rest of the Council expressed support for the marketing strategy, Councilmember Kevin McKeown noted the City must compete with “alternative facts” when getting their message to the public.

“There is so much information out there, not all of which is accurate, that for our city to move effectively with the policies that we decide on, we have to be out there competing for people’s attention. Competing for people’s hearts and minds,” McKeown said.

Councilmember Gleam Davis agreed, noting the City has to deal with competing narratives about its own ambitions.

“This community is not the hell hole that fifteen people would have you believe it is,” Davis said. “It is a wonderful, vibrant community but no one was getting that story out.”

kate@smdp.com

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