HHS hands D.C. consultants $250M to 'inspire hope' with pandemic campaign

HHS proposed public health COVID-19 campaign goes to a small D.C. firm with federal agency contacts and experience. (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 4.0)

HHS has picked a firm to handle its $250 million coronavirus campaign effort: the Washington D.C. consultancy Fors Marsh Group.

PR Week broke the news late Tuesday, the same day media reports about the contract surfaced. The year-long contract will run through next July, with the bulk of the work to be done between now and January.

The Trump administration Operation Warp Speed alluded to the coming campaign recently telling reporters to expect a big public messaging campaign by November.

Ben Garthwaite, CEO of Fors Marsh, told PR Week that his company’s winning proposal is evidence-based and built on “principles of behavioral and social science.”

Two of its large ad agency and media partners, VMLY&R and iHeartMedia, will be key to the campaign’s creative execution and media outreach, he said.

Fors Marsh has worked on federal government campaigns in the past; it lists the FDA, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) among its clients, along with more than a dozen other government agencies. Fors Marsh worked with the FDA, for instance, on research for VMLY&R’s “The Real Cost” youth smokeless tobacco use ad campaign.

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Fors March also worked with ad agency holding company WPP and iHeart Media in 2018 on a national opioid addiction initiative to reduce stigma as a barrier to treatment and recovery. The group is currently doing voting and election work under a two-year contract begun in July to provide data support to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

The HHS campaign brief for what would be a massive $250 million push asked bidders to include traditional, digital and social media, and partnerships with the sports and entertainment industries and public health groups. The campaign goal from HHS is to help the administration “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” regarding COVID-19.

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Social media commentary on Tueday after initial news of the campaign bid broke was mostly critical of the effort as money that could be used better elsewhere; off the mark as a strategy; or as political maneuvering by the Trump administration.

Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC under President Barack Obama, posted a USA Today article about the proposed campaign and its goals with the note: “The best way to ‘instill confidence to return to work’ is to control the virus. It's not rocket science, it’s competence.”

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer and now assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, will reportedly head up the campaign. He shot back at critics on social media with own series of tweets, including one that referred to a Huffington Post reporter as an “enemy of the people” and another that suggested a critic had lost his sanity.

Caputo also alluded to what some of the new work may be, with a repost of an ABC News story yesterday. He quoted a section of the article in which he said the administration needed to do more to communicate public health messaging during the pandemic.