NIAGARA FALLS – The Niagara Falls Housing Authority does not have an image problem, its leadership says, but needed some help communicating.
So earlier this year, the authority hired a Buffalo-based public relations firm.
“Sometimes people have their own skewed views of what you do, and who you serve, and why you do what you do,” said Executive Director Stephanie W. Cowart. “We want to enhance the education or the knowledge that people have about the Niagara Falls Housing Authority.”
The Housing Authority, which has about 800 apartments and 1,500 low-income residents, hired Jackson Parker Communications LLC in July. The hiring was not done by a board action, but was funded through an existing professional services line in the authority’s budget.
Cowart said that the authority put the work out to bid and that three firms responded to the request.
A contract signed July 23 limits the amount of work Jackson Parker Communications can do per month to $2,500, or $30,000 for a year. Under the agreement, the rate for services is prohibited from exceeding $75 per hour.
In the one-year agreement is a list of 20 of the firm’s duties, including writing news releases, attending authority business functions, developing a media policy, enhancing the authority’s existing Facebook page, writing speeches and acting as spokesperson.
Most of the authority officials interviewed about the contract emphasized the need to spread their message to the residents of the authority’s five properties.
But in the current draft version of its proposed five-year plan to be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the authority sets among its goals getting at least 15 “positive stories” in the media over the coming year.
“A lot of what organizations have to do, especially in times like these, are to educate the public on their goals, their objectives, their mission, their vision and their values,” Cowart said when asked about the media coverage goal.
The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority came under serious public criticism starting in May for spending more than $90,000 on a no-bid contract for public relations services.
At that time, Cowart said that the public relations responsibilities at the Falls authority were becoming “a little cumbersome” and that the organization was in the midst of putting out a request for proposals for the service.
Housing authorities in Rochester and Syracuse do not hire outside firms for public relations services, the Buffalo News reported earlier this year.
Cowart said that she did not want to hire a permanent employee to do the work but thought that a consultant “would better serve our needs on a shorter-term basis.”
Commissioner Cynthia A. Bianco – also the city school superintendent, a district that has staff member assigned to public relations duties – supports the hiring.
Bianco said it’s important to make sure the public is aware of what the authority does.
“I don’t think the authority has an image issue,” Bianco said.
Commissioner Jeff Paterson described the hiring of a public relations firm as “a good investment for an organization.”
One of the jobs of an organization such as the Housing Authority is to make sure people are accessing available services, said Paterson, whose previous work has included director of communication for the Health Association of Niagara County, as well as other positions at Carr Marketing Communications and Crowley Webb.
Paterson shook off any potential criticism questioning the need to pay an outside firm for such work.
“I’ve spent most of my career working on public relations, and I think that this knee-jerk reaction that some people have to say that doing public relations is necessarily a wasteful expenditure is dead wrong,” Paterson said. “The point of good public relations is to increase interaction and dialogue with your key constituencies.”
Commissioner Carmelette D. Rotella said she believes that there are a lot of misconceptions about public housing and the people who live in it.
One example, she said, is the perception that those living in Housing Authority properties don’t pay any rent.
In fact, a large percentage of residents work and are paying rent on a sliding scale based on how much they earn, Rotella said.
The authority has already undertaken communications outreach, including a public-access television program and a magazine.
“Hiring a public relations firm,” Rotella said, “is just another step in all these other steps we’ve taken.”