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It’s Good to Have a Hungry Team, When Feeding Off Taxpayer’s Money

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Of the over $16 million the State has spent on advertising and professional services so far this fiscal year, it has paid almost $3 Million to the Birmingham based public relations firm, Big Communications.

Last year, Big Communications received around $7 million for various projects it managed for the State, and business is looking good.

According to its website, Big Communications is “…a hungry team of creative communicators who dream up, create, research, plan and execute ideas that inspire people, challenge perceptions and actively change hearts and minds for the brands we serve.”

The State brands they serve are the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, Alabama Construction Institute, AIDTI and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The funds that come from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are technically money provided by oil giant BP, however, the rest is taxpayer dollars and fee-based State funds.

The Department of Commerce also uses Big Communications for various projects including its yearly air show junkets. So far this year, the department has paid the PR group almost $400,000 in State taxpayer dollars.

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So intricate are the relations between Big and Commerce, that if a reporter calls the office of Commerce’s Secretary Greg Canfield to inquire about a public matter, they are referred to Big Communication. According to Canfield’s office, all requests for State documents held by the Department of Commerce must be vetted by the staff of Big Communications.

This is a same PR firm that represents the Big Payday and Title Lenders in the State.

Last year, this publication reported on the nexus of the Paris Air Show, big money, State contracts, and predatory lending.

Another State client is the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute, (ACRI), a quasi-private-government partnership has spent $765,377.11, with Big Communication so far this year, and over a million in past years.

According to ACRI Executive Director Jason Phelps, the agency has two goals, “One is recruiting people with messaging that gets them to consider a career in construction and then there’s also Image Enhancement via those commercials.”

The website for ACRI, look much like a glamorized version of the construction worker with youthful, pretty women and masculine men. Phelps says some models were used, but that there are also real construction employees featured on the site. “We try to portray our trade’s workers in this State as heroes, community builders,” said Phelps, “Then we also want to let folks know about the great wages they could have and all the opportunities available in the commercial construction industry.”

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Phelps says that the mass media campaign is the only one of its kind in the country. “We’re the only state in the Nation that has really tackled this issue by going the mass media route….be flashy, be up-to-date and be where people are watching TV,” Phelps, explained.

ACRI was established in 2009, by an Act sponsored by Senator Wendell Mitchell and Senator Del Marsh. It is funded through a fee levied on employers based on wages paid to skilled construction workers on commercial and industrial jobs across the State. Then Gov. Bob Riley, incorporated ACRI as a non-profit according to the Secretary of State. Most notably, Big Communications created the “Go Build Alabama” advertising campaign for ACRI, featuring Dirty Jobs star, Mike Rowe.

The annual revenue raised for ACRI is around $1.5 million according to Phelps. The agency has a total of three employees.

The Alabama Industrial Development Training Institute, (AIDTI), is also a client of Bis spenting $85,576.00 with the firm to date. AIDTI since its founding was a part of the two-year college system, but in 2013 the Legislature placed it under the Department of Commerce.

AIDTI pays out millions of taxpayer dollars under so-called business incentive programs, under the guise of “employee training,” has a separate financial reporting system than other agencies. This year alone AIDTI has given $5 million to Austal for “employee training.” Austal USA is the American branch of the Australian Shipbuilders, which has a shipyard in Mobile.

The Department of Transportation is another State agency that relies upon Big for its communication projects.

According to Tony Harris, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, Big Communications has worked with the department since around 2010. In this fiscal year, the DOT has paid over $130,000 to the firm for a public information campaign associated with the replacement of bridges on the I-20/I-459,exchange, in Birmingham.

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According to Harris, “The project and all the public information needs associated with it, has defeated our ability to handle it internally.” Harris says that the DOT has a fully developed website—that has not yet been launched— and a full array of informational support and material that has been developed by Big. However, the construction project has crawled along, slowing the project almost to a halt.

“We’re all dressed up and have nowhere to go… just waiting now for the construction to catch up with it,” said Harris.

As the State approaches the end of this fiscal year, it would be hard to imagine that the “hungry team” at Big Communications is not really full. But, when tax payer dollars are being used, for many, a ravenous appetite.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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