Amid scrutiny over its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization in early May hired an American public relations firm to burnish its image, including through identifying so-called “influencers” to help amplify messaging about COVID-19.
“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,” Hill and Knowlton wrote in its proposal to WHO.
The contract earmarked $30,000 for “influencer identification,” $65,000 for “message testing” and $40,000 for a “campaign plan framework.”
Hill and Knowlton, which registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, proposed identifying three tiers of influencers: celebrities with large social media followings, individuals with smaller but more engaged followings and “hidden heroes,” those users with slight followings but who “nevertheless shape and guide conversations.”
The celebrity influencers would be used “for greater amplification of WHO messaging,” according to Hill and Knowlton’s proposal, which was first reported by the Daily Beast.
“Covid-19 has dominated day-to-day conversations, but not all voices are equal and not all are cutting through and being listened to,” the prospectus reads.
After a phase of identifying influencers and message testing, Hill and Knowlton proposed making recommendations to WHO to “help ensure science and public health message credibility from the WHO in order to ensure there is trust in the WHO’s advice and that public health guidance is followed.”
The WHO has come under intense scrutiny, especially in the United States, for a series of inaccurate assessments of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Jan. 14, the organization amplified claims from the Chinese government that the virus was not transmitted through human-to-human contact. WHO officials also said in February that there was little evidence that people without symptoms were transmitting the virus.
Both claims have proved wildly inaccurate, with some health experts saying that WHO’s inaccurate statements have hindered the global response to the pandemic.
“When you look at what WHO did I think they set us back a great deal because they made countries believe if just a few countries that were going to get this would just do the containment work, we could stop it,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, a leading epidemiologist, said in an interview in late March.
“Many of us were incredibly disappointed, for lack of a better word, in the WHO and its response,” Osterholm added.
“The WHO’s reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a twenty-fold increase in cases worldwide, and it may be much more than that,” Trump said on April 14.
The administration notified the WHO on July 6 that it would withdraw its membership next year.
Hill and Knowlton said in the filing that it registered as a foreign agent of the WHO “as a matter of prudence.” The organization receives funding from member-states and private organizations. The United States is by far the largest contributor to the WHO’s budget, contributing more than $400 million each year.
Hill and Knowlton said that the contract with WHO was set to expire on June 15, but that its work is ongoing.
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