Coronavirus, Top Stories, US-China tensions

WHO hires PR giant to target key influencers amid Trump attacks

The World Health Organization has hired a public relations giant to target celebrities and other key influencers as it battles attacks from President Donald Trump and others over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN agency hired Hill and Knowlton Strategies for $135,000 effective May 1 to help restore trust in the 72-year-old organization, according to a newly filed registration with the US Department of Justice. Trump has accused the WHO of being too cozy with China and begun the year-long process of pulling the United States, its largest donor at $450 million a year, out of the organization.

The registration says the New York-based firm will assist the WHO by “establishing a baseline measure of public awareness and perceptions” of the organization, “identifying influencers in key regions” and “developing message strategies in order to ensure there is trust in the WHO’s advice and that public health guidance is followed.” The work was initially due to be completed by June 15 but is still ongoing.

“It has never been a more critical time to ensure that public health messages are understood and resonate across the world,” Hill and Knowlton’s statement of work says. “The WHO is a science-and-evidence-based beacon of such information. However there has been criticism and assertions leveled against the World Health Organization (WHO) and media coverage that could undermine WHO as a trusted and critical information source on global public health issues. Whilst the temptation could be to react every time, a sound, considered and thoughtful approach will mitigate the risk of further inflaming the situation.”

The WHO did not respond to requests for comment. Hill and Knowlton said it registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) “out of an abundance of caution.” The firm’s global chairman and CEO, AnnaMaria DeSalva, is herself one of seven people registered on the account.

“H+K Strategies has been engaged to help maximize the impact of the WHO’s science-based message to people worldwide,” Senior Vice President Joe Householder told Foreign Lobby Report in an emailed statement. “While our work has nothing to do with influencing governments anywhere, because some of the H+K WHO team is U.S. based we filed under FARA out of an abundance of caution.”

“There has been criticism and assertions leveled against the WHO … that could undermine WHO as a trusted and critical information source on global public health issues.”

Hill and Knowlton

The statement of work calls for a three-phased approach, starting with the identification of trusted voices in key regions. According to Hill and Knowlton, these include:

  • Macro Influencers those with large followings (1M+) such as celebrities for greater amplification of WHO messaging;
  • Micro Influencers those with smaller but highly engaged followings who function as trusted advisors and informed validators; and
  • Hidden Heroes those without significant followings but who nevertheless shape and guide conversations, such as health experts appearing frequently on news programs.

The firm is also tracking people driving the conversation in the scientific and medical community; the media; non-governmental organizations; and among the “informed public.” Hill and Knowlton also plans to conduct online surveys in select countries to measure WHO awareness and perceptions.

Armed with that information, the firm intends to develop a campaign plan. The registration indicates Hill and Knowlton has already paid data collection firm Logit Group Inc. $32,200 for “programming, hosting, translations and tables for message testing survey research” and consultant Christopher Blunt $1,500 for “advanced analysis on message testing research survey.”

Registered on the account along with DeSalva and Householder are: Senior Vice President for data and analytics John Gillooly; Senior vice presidents Ronald McBurney Hutcheson and Nicholas Driver; Global Chief Development Officer Samantha Lythgoe; and account manager Anna Hershberger Oswald.