Associated Press Writer

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) An agency charged with creating jobs in Iowa has hired a Texas-based public relations giant to market the state around the world.

The decision by the Iowa Department of Economic Development has sparked criticism by some Republicans who claim a number of Iowa companies could effectively promote the state.

"The idea that a department tasked with growing Iowa's economy would outsource their public relations efforts is ludicrous," said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for the American Futures Fund, an Iowa conservative advocacy group.

State officials defended their decision, saying the move is more complex than critics argue and ultimately will help effectively promote Iowa.

The controversy began when the Department of Economic Development requested bids for its marketing effort.

The Des Moines-based public relations firm Integer has been handling marketing for the agency and was awarded the contract for tourism efforts. But the business component of the agency's marketing effort went to public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, a Texas-based company with offices in more than 80 countries.

The company's president is Mark Penn, who was chief strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign. Among the top officials is Karen Hughes, a vice chairwoman who previously was among Republican President George W. Bush's top aides.

Phil Roeder, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, defended the decision. He said the agency is charged with marketing Iowa around the world and needs a company with the resources that Burson-Marsteller offers.

"I think the department found a combination of agencies that gave them the best of both worlds," said Roeder. "They've got local agencies involved and they've got international agencies involved."

Eric Woolson, who heads a West Des Moines public relations company called the Concept Works, said there are a number of local firms that could have handled the effort.

"Burson certainly has a lot of resources that a lot of companies don't have, but there are a number of firms in this state who understand the Iowa message and can communicate it anywhere in the world," said Woolson, who has worked on presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee.

He said the move gives Iowa a public relations black eye.

"It's disappointing that the governor's office and the DED would go out of state when there are tremendous resources here in Iowa," said Woolson. "My sense is they will pay more and probably not get the kind of attention they would get from an Iowa firm that is going to be front and center every day."

Roeder responded that the issue is more complex, and that among the reasons Burson-Marsteller was selected is because the company has a relationship with the Larson-Shannahan-Slifka Group of West Des Moines.

That company includes former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Chuck Larson Jr. and veteran Democratic activist Joe Shannahan. Larson will serve as general strategist for the public relations effort, while Shannahan will provide communications services.

"What DED did is they have to communicate far beyond the borders of the state, frankly to the borders of the world," said Roeder.

The agency said the selection gave them not only local contacts but access to the resources Burson-Marsteller offers, which include 1,600 people with offices in 84 countries.

"The ability to effectively utilize this network to expand not only our domestic but also our global reach was something only Burson-Marsteller demonstrated and was a very important part of the decision by the review committee," the agency said, in a statement.

That explanation didn't satisfy everyone.

"This sends a terrible message, that it's OK for the DED to turn their backs on hard-working Iowans while attempting to sell the state to others," said Albrecht.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.