L&I Buys Fake News Articles to Improve Image

$15,000 for three advertorials on Philly.com.

Screenshot via Philly.com

Screenshot via Philly.com

Philadelphia’s Licenses & Inspections department has been under fire since what seems like the beginning of time.

The department was created in 1951, and just one year later, 10 employees were caught taking bribes (“some of the inspectors had been corrupted for as little as $2, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote). In the 1960s, an L&I Commissioner was indicted on 22 — 22! — counts, ranging from bribery to blackmail to extortion. The 1980s and 1990s saw more L&I payoff scandals. Then, Philadelphia was forever changed in 2013 when six people were killed when a building collapsed on Market Street; many said L&I was incompetent and starved for resources.

This year, the Inquirer has revealed that contractors have torn down buildings without the necessary permits and inexperienced L&I employees have been responsible for inspecting dangerous buildings.

This is a department that could use a little good press. So it decided to buy some. L&I spent $15,000 on three advertorials on Philly.com in recent months. Each advertorial is roughly 500 to 600 words long, and each tells the story of a reformed department.

One advertorial, titled “Preventing future demolition tragedies,” focuses on the changes L&I made in the wake of the deadly building collapse, from working more closely with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to requiring contractors to submit safety plans before demolishing buildings to increasing training for city employees.

Another advertorial details three ways that L&I “is shaping a safer Philadelphia”: through a new website, a partnership with the revenue department to help the city collect delinquent taxes, and better customer service, it says. The final advertorial, “A future built on safety and accessibility,” also highlights the ways in which L&I has been overhauled since the Market Street tragedy, though it doesn’t explicitly mention the event.

“The city goes further than almost all major cities in its enforcement of demolition regulations and in its demolition inspections, with the hope and expectation that these extra steps can help keep all of Philadelphia, both citizens and visitors, safe,” L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams is quoted as saying in the advertorial.

Beth Grossman, Williams’ chief-of-staff, defended the advertorials to Citified and confirmed that they cost $15,000.

“The advertorials are a way to educate the public as to L&I’s recent changes and improvements,” she said, “including building and demolition safety and customer accessibility.”

To be sure, 2015 L&I is different than the L&I of a few years ago. Many changes have been made (just how effective they’ll be is an open question). L&I is also slated to receive an increase in funding this year, which will allow it to hire badly-needed inspectors. Also, it’s worth noting that the advertorial’s $15,000 price tag is a drop in the bucket of L&I’s budget: .05% of its $31.5 million of total funding this year, to be exact.

But still. L&I spent $15,000 on three Philly.com advertorials. OMG.