Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: How much are tweets promoting St. Petersburg worth?

No wonder St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman tried to sneak an overly ambitious marketing contract past the public this week. At $225,000, it is too expensive and adds to the mayor's free-spending reputation. The City Council was right to hit the brakes, and there are better ways to spend city taxpayer money than to add so much to the public relations machine that already appears very healthy.

The one-year contract added late to Thursday's City Council agenda would pay Tampa marketing firm Spark Branding House up to $225,000 to promote St. Petersburg's economic and cultural assets. Included in the price tag is more than $80,000 to pay "influencers'' to spread positive messages about the city on social media. That better buy a whole lot of tweets and Facebook posts.

The contract was listed on the council's consent agenda, which is supposed to be for routine business that frequently passes on a single vote without discussion. It also was added after an earlier meeting where council members can ask department heads about individual items and review background materials. Fortunately, the contract caught council member Ed Montanari's eye and he flagged it for further discussion. Council member Amy Foster also raised some skeptical questions, and the vote on the contract was postponed.

There is every reason to promote St. Petersburg's considerable attraction as a place to do business and as a vibrant cultural arts destination. But as the Times' Charlie Frago reported, the city already spends more than $3 million on marketing and has earmarked more than $280,000 for external marketing, including the money for influencers in this proposed contract. Then why spend the additional money in the Spark contract?

Before spending more money on promotion, council members should get a firmer grasp on why it's needed and how it fits with multiple other marketing efforts that benefit St. Petersburg. There's Visit Florida. There's Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. There's the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. There's St. Petersburg's new Economic Development Corp. There are all sorts of privately financed social media efforts that promote the city's downtown and cultural arts.

It's reasonable to spend some amount of city money on promoting its attributes and attracting new businesses and tourists. It's also reasonable to question whether this contract is the best use of general tax dollars when there are other city needs and other sources of public and private money for promotion.

Kriseman's aides insist the hefty promotion contract has nothing to do with his re-election campaign. But with the August election less than six months away and his effort to quietly slide this through the City Council, this looks suspiciously like another way to enhance the mayor's image as well as the city's at a convenient time.

City Council members voted unanimously to defer action on the Spark contract until they get more information. That was the right move. The city needs to market itself, but taxpayers should be able to know their money is being spent wisely. A vaguely worded, $225,000 contract added late to the consent agenda does not provide that assurance.

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