State taxpayers will soon be paying for public relations and marketing teams in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, as part of a restructuring announced in a recent agency memorandum.
Ricky Diaz, a 24-year-old former McCrory campaign whose $85,000 salary as DHHS’ communications director sparked controversy this summer, outlined the changes in an Oct. 24 internal memorandum (see below) obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request.
“Upon arriving at DHHS, I immediately began conducting a review of the Office of Public Affairs and began to examine the overall needs of the Department,” Diaz wrote. “What I have found is that because of the many stakeholder groups and audiences we communicate with on a daily basis, DHHS faces both internal and external communications challenges that are unique to state government.”
The changes will create a one-member press team responsible for responding to media inquiries, as well as a six-person marketing team and a 13-member public relations team. The department headed by Diaz will also be now called the “Office of Communications” instead of the “Office of Public Affairs.”
It’s not clear what the proposed changes will mean for media in the state, with a rocky relationship emerging between the state’s press corps and the agency heads as controversies over questionable hires and high salaries state agency have mounted under DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, as Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News wrote in a September newspaper editorial.
The new restructuring includes six vacant positions. Diaz, however, did not respond to questions about whether those vacancies are new, or existing positions.
It’s unusual to see public agencies form marketing or public relations branches, in large part because of a federal provision called the Gillett Amendment that prohibits federal money from being used for publicity unless specifically earmarked for that reason, said Lois Boynton, a public relations professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s communications school.
State and local governments have tended to mimic the federal approach, and generally stay away from using marketing or public relations as overt pieces of their communications efforts of policies. Marketing use has increased, with more research available about what type of information need (as in public health or public safety campaigns) and how best to reach them.
The public still tends to be wary when those marketing or public relations techniques common in the private sector are used by governmental agencies in explaining policies or performance, she said.
“It’s mostly been a public information or public affairs-type of approach and not labeled as much as public relations or marketing,” Boynton said. “That does have a certain connotation.”
DHHS’ new public relations team will be led by Julie Henry, who was hired during the Perdue administration and will now be “anticipating, analyzing and responding to public opinion and issues that might impact, good or bad, the operations and plans of the Department.”
She will also oversee a Medicaid communications team lead tasked with supporting the McCrory administration’s future plans to overhaul the state’s Medicaid system by potentially opening up health care system for the elderly, disabled and children to the private market, a process that will require the legislature’s approval. (On Friday, McCrory appointed his three members of a new Medicaid Reform Advisory Group.)
Aaron Mullins, a political strategist hired in September as DHHS’s marketing and brand director, will be the agency’s new marketing director and will, according to Diaz’s memorandum, “ensur[e] that our messages are reaching the right people at the right place at the right time” through videos, social media and email marketing. Mullins had done some work for McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign.