The Indianapolis Star’s Dan McFeely was asked by his editor last July to do something awkward for a beat reporter obliged to maintain at least the veneer of objectivity.
The assignment: A story headlined “25 things I love about Carmel”—the northern suburb he covered.
“His only hesitancy was in stopping at 25—he proposed 250 things to love,” said an editor’s preface to the piece, which the city featured prominently on its own website for months.
The proud Carmel resident in November quit the layoff-prone Gannett newspaper to become a consultant to Carmel’s Department of Economic Development. Records show the deal could be lucrative for the 15-year Star veteran, with the potential to earn up to $99,000 a year for services including writing press releases, tweeting, and improving the content of Carmel’s website.
McFeely’s hiring as consultant has not been without questions, however.
City Councilor Luci Snyder wondered aloud at a recent council meeting what qualified McFeely to be an economic development consultant. His McFeely Communications just launched in November.
Snyder told IBJ McFeely’s hiring is part of a broader concern she has about Carmel’s economic development department tapping numerous consultants. Records show the department has 17 economic development consultants who could earn a total of $806,670 annually.
“We have budget constraints” in the city. “Why are you throwing away almost another $100,000?” Snyder told IBJ.
The dollar value of McFeely’s consulting contract is the third-largest with Carmel’s department of economic development. The largest is $175,000 for audio visual services, with a firm identified as Omni. Carmel-based Omni Center for Public Media has produced promotional videos for the city.
The second-highest-paid consultant is New York-based Rob DeRocker & Associates, which identifies itself as an international economic development consultancy. It could earn $125,000.
One of DeRocker’s big coups for the city was in landing a prominent USA Today story in October 2012, which sported a beaming photo of Mayor Jim Brainard.
In his first month working for Carmel, McFeely Communications submitted an invoice for $2,750, for a nine-day period in November. Services included using Twitter and Facebook “to spread the message of economic development opportunities in Carmel to a world-wide Web audience.”
Other professional services included writing press releases about the sale of bonds and about road projects. McFeely, in his late 40s, met with city officials to strategize “on ways to use various local events and activities as tools for bringing more economic development to the city,” among several other activities listed.
The contract, which is set to automatically renew each January for a one-year period, does not specify a number of hours to be worked, measure of productivity, or an hourly rate.
McFeely did not return phone calls. According to his LinkedIn page, he studied theology at Marian University and obtained an ecclesial lay ministry degree at St. Joseph’s College. Since 2007, he’s headed an adult faith ministry for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. At press time, he had about 1,700 Twitter followers.
Nancy Heck, director of communications and economic development for Carmel, said the city doesn’t have the staff to conduct all the work needed for economic development outreach—thus the hiring of consultants. “One of our needs in economic development is communication.”
The economic development staff consists of four full-time employees (including Heck) and two part-timers.
The city did not seek proposals from other firms for McFeely’s work. Heck said hiring a service provider is not like ordering supplies.
“Dan was our pick,” she said. “He’s covered Carmel for several years, so we are familiar with his work and the quality of his work.”
By not seeking requests for proposals for such services, a municipality could invite questions about transparency, said one longtime public relations veteran.
Some may ask, “Are they getting the best deal? Are there other people who may have more of a strategic view?” observed David Shank, of Indianapolis-based Shank Public Relations Counselors.
Some of the skills a consultant might need in such economic development outreach could include the ability to gauge the educational or work-force development needs of a prospective company that might want to move into a community. A consultant also would do well to be able to anticipate potential opposition in the community, for example, Shank said.
McFeely “isn’t an economic development person,” Snyder said.
Just how the city should be conducting its economic development outreach is open for debate. But the bottom line is that it should tell the story in the most effective and efficient way, said Carmel City Councilor Ron Carter.
For years, Carmel has enjoyed word-of-mouth attention for its amenities without making as much of a formal economic development outreach as perhaps it should, Carter said.
As for hiring as a consultant a reporter fresh out of the Star, Carter said he didn’t know enough to gauge McFeely’s qualifications. Carter did note that many PR firms are staffed with former journalists.
Often they leave the media for jobs with those they once covered because those jobs offer more lucrative opportunities, said Joseph Boyce, a former Wall Street Journal editor. The journalists are not necessarily hired because of perceived bias as much as an employer perceives them to have been fair in their previous coverage, Boyce said.•