Reactions have been negative to a $60,000, six-month contract between the Town of East Hampton and a New York City-based communications firm hired to help get the word out about Covid-19 issues and to redesign the town website. Principals at South Fork marketing and public relations firms were outraged at the idea of money they desperately could have used being sent instead to Manhattan. Others, good government types, saw the $10,000-a-month deal as a waste of good money at a very bad time.
Competing rationalizations from town board supporters only confuse matters. The goal is message consistency, according to one view, or it is getting the message about social distancing to people who have not heard it yet or just misunderstand what to do. Neither explanation seems entirely plausible. Instead, hiring an outside firm seems about control, not communication.
One thing to consider is the context in which the decision comes. Since March, East Hampton Town government has been placed in an “emergency” mode, with ultimate authority centered on Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, and the duly elected remainder of the town board relegated to supporting roles. Some of the manifestations of this have been almost comical. For example, since the Covid-19 crisis began the photos on the town’s Instagram account have almost exclusively been of Mr. Van Scoyoc, so maybe the town really does have a messaging problem.
Pressure to hire an outside firm came from the town’s business recovery group, which is mostly real estate and hospitality people, not out of evident concern about public health. Viewed this way, it is difficult not to conclude that the economic interests of the advisory group’s members may have played a large role in pushing the board to spend the money.
From our perspective, messaging has to be among the least of the reasons for hiring the city firm. Not once since the coronavirus crisis began has anyone from Town Hall sought this newspaper’s help in alerting the public about anything. We stand at the ready. Had messaging been an actual priority, we would have thought that at least a single member of the town board or support staff would have picked up the phone to ask for help. We suspect this radio silence has been the case for the South Fork’s other media outlets as well.
If anything, from experience with school districts that have hired outside communications firms in the past, we know that the information flow tends to contract, not improve. Unfortunately, this may be Town Hall’s true objective.