€17 million spent on PR over four years

  • The cost of political communications is high, as the “Walloon logo affair” has again proven.
  • In the space of four years, the eight Walloon ministers have spent €17 million on campaigns.

€17 million: the sum spent by ministers of the Walloon government since coming to power in June 2009 to communicate their policies to the public. The exact total, after four years of a five-year term, is €17,710,064.

By the end of that period, the final bill is likely to surpass €20 million. Elections have had a significant effect on public relations-related activities. The first quarter of 2012 saw €5.2 million allocated to communications campaigns. Their impact was felt, at times with good results, in the local election in October.

Do these campaigns work? The amounts involved are obviously very large, but they represent a drop in the ocean when compared to the annual budget in Wallonia, which sits at around €8 billion. Government communication only accounts for 0.2 % of the sums managed by the PS-CDH-Ecolo coalition.

As far as the French Community of Belgium is concerned, the bill is also substantial: €7,637,187, but the figures that have come into Le Soir’s possession only apply to a three-year period, up to June 2012.

In the opinion of the opposition party, the Reformist Movement (MR), it’s too much. Member of parliament Jean-Paul Wahl, who has made this issue his top priority, decries the money spent and raises doubts as to the effectiveness of these costly campaigns. “Honestly, when you’re in your bathroom in the morning and you hear an ad for the ‘Marshall Plan’, do you know any more about it afterwards?”

Legality, not desirability

Nevertheless, it should be recognized that the governments of the two regions have taken strict measures to stem their communications spending and verify the use of public donations. From the moment they took office, they axed their budgets up to 33 %.

In addition, in both Wallonia and the French Community, a closed-doors parliamentary committee analyses ministerial projects and decides whether to give them the green light.

“It’s a body that functions well,” explains a member of parliament unwilling to give his name. “It’s not a case of there always being a majority versus opposition split. Members work completely independently and have established a jurisprudence that stands up in court.”

The only pitfall of the system, which explains why the public often doubts the relevance of certain campaigns, is that parliament members only have to come to a decision on the legality of the undertaking, rather than its desirability. In short, it is only untimely photos and a requirement for multiple signatures and personal promotion, which is forbidden.

Nevertheless, from that point on, it is intriguing that so many ministers in Wallonia and the French Community have taken a liking to editorials, prefaces, back-page articles, and more generally to written contributions. Through them they express interest in a special event that they happen to be sponsoring, assuring themselves of some good publicity in the process.

Those types of “campaigns” are more discreet, but they are just as effective. They can take the form of subsidies to local initiatives by means of discretionary spending and obviously escape the clutches of parliamentary verification.

In conclusion, Wallonia, concerned about projecting an image of good governance, has made good progress in recent years with reduced budgets and stricter controls.

However, on the other hand there remain campaigns like the one run in favor of French Fries Week (Semaine de la Frite), which cost an astonishing €80,964 at the end of 2009…



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