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Governor spends big bucks for PR

Murkowski says it's to get message across about his policy and progress

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski recently hired an international firm to boost his public relations message, and since taking office in 2003, he's poured thousands of dollars into the same effort.

Murkowski says it's to get his message across about policy and progress. His opponents say he's trying to boost his image.

The governor, who, according to one poll by Survey USA has the second-worst rating among governors with 27 percent approval, has not announced whether he will run for re-election.

Some $3,000 was spent on consulting by public-relations firm Rockey Hill & Knowlton to train the governor's public-relations staff, spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said.

That's in addition to $63,300 the governor spends each year producing a weekly 30-minute TV show titled "Our Alaska," which serves as a way for Murkowski and his staff to communicate directly with constituents.

Last year, Murkowski spent $22,000 on a 12-page newspaper insert, and at the start of his term $11,000 went to media-relations seminar training for commissioners and staffers.

All of the money comes from tax dollars.

"Basically, it's an inappropriate use of public funds," said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, about the governor hiring extra help. "I think the vast majority of Alaskans would agree with me on this."

Hultberg said the fuss over the issue is making "mountains out of molehills."

"Private companies send staff to training sessions all of the time," she said.

Hultberg is one of four full-time communications officers. Two others provide technical assistance.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said with that many employees the governor shouldn't need to spend money on an outside public-relations firm for more help.

"If his ideas can't stand on their own, then I don't think the people should have to pay to spin his ideas into standing," he said.

Murkowski's message to the public is he's fighting for resource development, education, a strong economy and protecting the environment, Hultberg said.

Critics blast Murkowski for budget cuts he made at the beginning of his term, controversial decisions such as appointing his daughter to fill his empty seat in the U.S. Senate, and most recently, buying a jet to fly him across the state.

Ellis, who has been a legislator since 1986, said the governor is "panicking" in response to his low approval rating, and compared to previous governors, spending money on an outside public-relations firm is taking his duty to deliver information to "a whole new level."

Still, the senator complimented Murkowski and his wife for doing public service announcements for breast cancer awareness.

Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, who often describes himself as being an independent Republican and sometime Libertarian, said he remembers Alaska's previous governor, Democrat Tony Knowles, paying more attention to his popularity, among suspicions that he was vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

"It turns out that we were right," Kohring said. Knowles ran for the Senate unsuccessfully last year.

Kohring said Murkowski's public-relations efforts come off as both informative and an advertisement.

"I think it's important to let people know what he does," said Kohring, adding that all politicians, including himself, do some self-promotion.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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