HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The University of Hawaii has hired two public relations firms with contracts worth $150,000 to supplement the work of 13 PR people already on the UH system payroll. More than 30 other UH public relations staffers work on other UH campuses and at different UH schools statewide.
That information was revealed after UH provided Hawaii News Now documents in response to public records requests.
UH President MRC Greenwood told senators Monday there are 13 people in her office working in public relations, down from 20 in 2003 during the time of previous UH President Evan Dobelle.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that you're staffed the way you might want to be for crisis management when you have a crisis. It is sometimes cheaper for us to contract with outside folks who've had that experience than it is to maintain that staff," Greenwood said.
And that's what UH has done, hiring the PR firm Bright Light Marketing for up to $124,500 on a one-year contract to handle communications for the UH's planned bio safety lab in Kalaeloa, which operates under the UH medical school, where just one full-time PR staffer is on the payroll.
A second PR contract with a firm called Hoakea Communications is for up to $25,000, a flat fee of $2,500 a month.
Hoakea's President Barbara Tanabe said her firm meets with Greenwood each month to discuss and plan for research projects that may become higher profile, such as the bio safety lab, telescopes on the neighbor islands, the UH Cancer Center and UH's Innovation Initiative, an effort to double the amount of research at UH to $1 billion.
In the last two and a half months, the firm has also helped with the aftermath of the failed Stevie Wonder concert, Tanabe said.
But Tanabe said her firm will also be paid on a subcontract, offering what she calls "communications support" to attorney Bob Katz, whose firm Torkildson Katz is being paid up to $25,000 to help UH respond to the senate investigation and redact documents being released to the public.
"We are merely helping the legal team produce materials that will help with the communications effort," Tanabe said. "We have to meet with the lawyers to go over what are the documents that need to be redacted and why."
Tanabe said her work for Katz started in August and she hasn't finalized the subcontract with him to figure out how her firm will be paid yet.
"We haven't had a chance to negotiate. Usually, we propose an estimate and then negotiate from there. Under these circumstances, we had to move quite quickly," Tanabe said.
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D-Moanalua, Aiea, Kalihi Valley) chairs the State Senate Special Committee on Accountability that's looking into management and budget decisions at UH, as well as the failed Stevie Wonder concert.
"I'm curious to know exactly why would an attorney who is redacting the work and gathering the work would actually need to have a media contract imbedded into his contract?" Kim asked.
Kim said UH already has a full complement of skilled, experienced PR people and she questioned why the school needs to spend more money on consultants.
"I just think there needs to be justification for that," Kim said. "They have some very good television reporters, newspaper reporters on staff.
"I really can't understand -- we have a whole slew of PR people on staff -- that we have to subcontract more PR?"
The UH System, which oversees all ten campuses, has 13 public relations employees on staff and a budget of $1.2 million. UH said just three of those employees are devoted to media response and daily PR with the other 10 working in other areas like the UH's web site, as well as video and graphic arts production.
"We're busy every day doing basic internal and external communications, even without the concert and ensuing Senate hearings," said Lynne Waters, UH's associate vice president of external affairs and university relations.
Greenwood said her public relations staff on the system level has seen its focus shift from "a sort of reactive press relations, to a news organization trying to organize and get things out."
"We put in a unit that does our own video. And we've had something over several hundred stories now that have gotten out some of this message. The value of that is over half a million dollars, if that were advertising," Greenwood told senators Monday.
Each campus and some different UH colleges have their own PR people.
For example, there are ten additional public relations employees at UH Manoa, not counting the newly-created communications position for former UH Athletics Director Jim Donovan that is paying him $240,000 until March, when his pay rate will decrease to $211,000. Three of those positions are in Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple's office, including one which UH officials said was set to be combined with another vacant post to pay for Donovan's salary.
In total, there are at least 43 public relations staffers statewide in the UH system with a PR budget of about $4 million.
Kim said she asked UH for copies of all of UH's public relations contracts for the last ten years and UH provided five contracts late last week, but not the two that Hawaii News Now obtained for this story.
"I've come to the realization that unless you ask specifically, and you have to ask very specifically, they're not going to give you (what you want) even though they might know what you're asking for," Kim said.
She believes UH didn't give those to her because those two contracts were issued under the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, known as RCUH, an entity that can be considered technically separate from the university.
"There's been concerns that when they don't want us to know things that they go to RCUH and have RCUH then go ahead and procure stuff because RCUH has some procurement exemptions," Kim said.
RCUH does not have any public relations employees on staff, UH officials said.