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Extensive document requests yield true cost of Illinois’ PR campaign for insurance coverage Date: 07/02/14

Carla K. Johnson
Carla K. Johnson

By Carla K. Johnson

When Illinois awarded a $33 million contract to a high-priced PR firm to promote insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, I began filing open records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information law.

One FOIA request led to another. And another. In the end, I filed 10 separate requests that yielded important information for a two-day accountability report for The Associated Press on spending of public dollars to promote the health law in President Obama’s home state.

Public relations agency FleishmanHillard’s 88-page contract, obtained through a records request, contained clues about other existing documents, such as monthly detailed explanations of invoices and a “work plan” required by the contract. I FOIA'd those, repeating my request for invoices and explanations monthly until I had enough to detect trends.

Background interviews with people in the advertising industry led me to request the state’s scoring sheets, which revealed exactly how FleishmanHillard won the bid, despite having the highest hourly billing rates among the top five bidders. (The agency's bid on ad placement commissions was the lowest, but in dollars represented less than 2 percent of the contract amount.)

Then there were the subcontractors. FleishmanHillard had put together a team of agencies to help with the work. I requested all the subcontracts. They showed how a politically connected outfit had a special provision in its subcontract allowing it to take direct assignments from the governor’s administration.

The monthly explanations of billing revealed that more than 90 individuals were billing at rates of at least $270 per hour. I found contracts in other states to compare with the Illinois agreement, clearly demonstrating that hourly rates in my state were unusually high.

I found humor, too, in the document trove. The PR firm tested the brand name “Wellinois” for the campaign but focus groups mocked the idea as too cheesy. State officials didn't like the alternate name "HealthIllinois" either, sending the firm back to the drawing board. Finally, I had an explanation for why it took my state until the last minute to find its brand name: "Get Covered Illinois."

The research led to a two-day series of stories on the contracts, which landed on front pages in Illinois in June. I used Document Cloud to share highlights of the documents with readers.

What did I learn from the endeavor?

  • Background interviews with insiders are crucial when you're writing about the PR industry where gossip is rampant, but no one will go on the record.
  • Sometimes it's best to store up multiple documents until you can connect the dots into a picture.
  • Armed with numbers and other facts from the documents, your interview questions get more pointed and may even get you beyond the spin machine.

Carla K. Johnson (@CarlaKJohnson), a medical writer at The Associated Press, has covered health and medicine since 2001 and has been an AHCJ member nearly that long. In 2003, she joined the board of the organization and has worked as the board's liaison to AHCJ's local chapters. She worked many years at the daily newspaper in Spokane, Wash., before returning to her native Illinois to join the AP.