Monday 23 April 2018

Irish Water's €316,000 on PR to deal with bad press

Anti-water charges protesters make their way down Dublin’s O’Connell St in February. Photo: Frank McGrath
Anti-water charges protesters make their way down Dublin’s O’Connell St in February. Photo: Frank McGrath
Emma Jane Hade

Emma Jane Hade

Embattled Irish Water is spending a fortune trying to improve its public image.

Ervia - the parent group of the under-pressure utility company - has admitted it spent more than €30,000 on external press and communications advisers in just four months.

Documents released to the Sunday Independent through a Freedom of Information request have shown that the body spent a total of €316,948 on hiring four Dublin-based public relations firms since January 2014.

However, the company - which employs an internal three-person, full-time press team - claims the high level of spending was necessary as it believed the media attention Irish Water received was "entirely unprecedented".

And Ervia said the substantial spend is "directly related to the significant and continuing media attention focused on Irish Water".

Since January 2014, the majority of the six-figure sum spent on external communications went to the Murray Consultants group, who have received €269,745.

A further €15,643 was given to Terry Prone's Communications Clinic in a one-off payment in August 2014, while Fleishman Hillard received €29,560 for work over a nine-month period in 2014.

Pembroke, which is now part of the massive PSG firm, received a sum of €2,000 for work carried out in January 2014.

The biggest single sum paid out was €36,153 in March 2015. This was also the same month that tens of thousands of protesters converged on O'Connell Street for an anti- water charges rally.

Just over €29,000 was paid out in November 2014. This was the same month that environment minister Alan Kelly and Irish Water managing director John Tierney apologised for what they described as "major failings" in how the semi-state company was set up.

A spokesperson for the company said that since the company was established in 2013, it has addressed more than 7,200 individual media queries.

"Irish Water has featured more than 72,602 times across print, broadcast and online media articles up to the end of 2015.

"The scale of the response required from this company to deal with this media attention has been significant and has directly contributed to a need to source additional professional communications support to deal with these queries and to assist in the proactive planning of specific media campaigns," a spokesperson added.

It is understood that both Fleishman and Murray groups provided "strategic proactive media planning support".

"This kind of external strategic support is normal for any large company with a large customer base and wide group of stakeholders," it said.

The internal press team comprises a head of media relations who joined the controversial company in March 2015, a senior press officer who was hired in June 2014 and a regional media specialist, who was taken on last December.

They work for Ervia and provide 'media support' across the group, which includes Irish Water.

The spokesperson said the companies competing to supply the 'communication support services' submitted tenders to Ervia and that the best value was sought.

"The process Ervia uses in acquiring goods and services at competitive prices meets best-practice standards as regards to public sector tendering."

Last week it emerged that Irish Water planned a €300m upgrade of the country's largest sewage plant in Ringsend, Dublin, which will increase its capacity by 50pc.

Sunday Independent

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