Frank Washkuch
Jul 21, 2020

Attacked by Trump, the WHO turned to Hill+Knowlton Strategies in May

The WPP firm laid out a six-week research and planning program for the embattled public health organisation.

WHO headquarters in Geneva.
WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Called a lackey for China by President Donald Trump this spring, the World Health Organization hired Hill+Knowlton Strategies to bolster its public image. 

The United Nations’ specialised public health agency hired the WPP firm to help it develop a baseline measurement of public awareness and perceptions, and create messaging strategies to build trust in its advice and ensure its guidance is followed. 

The WHO reached an agreement with H+K at the start of May. Work was set to run through mid-June, though the pact could be extended, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents filed with the US Justice Department. The WPP agency billed the WHO US$135,000 for the six-week contract. 

The firm began conducting research on public awareness and perception of the WHO at the start of May. In an overview of its planned work for the WHO, H+K noted “there has been criticism and assertions leveled against the WHO and media coverage that could undermine WHO as a trusted and critical information source on global public health issues.” 

However, the firm said in documents filed with the DOJ that the organisation should take a more patient and research-based approach to countering negative press. It argued, “Whilst the temptation could be to react every time, a sound, considered and thoughtful approach will mitigate the risk of further inflaming the situation. 

“Sound research must be the first step to establish the foundation to build a communications framework. 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 firm said in FARA documents first reported on by The Daily Beast

The agency also outlined post-research phases of the work for message testing and identifying influencers. It planned to pinpoint influencers in three categories: macroinfluencers, with followings of 1 million-plus; microinfluencers seen as “trusted advisers and informed validators”; and “hidden heroes,” such as health experts who appear in the media.

The agency also planned message testing and comparing public perception of the WHO to other organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CARE International, the World Bank and the U.N. Based on the research, it would also work on program development. 

The core H+K team on the account was set to be Nick Driver, head of the data and insights team; data and analytics SVP John Gillooly; SVP Ron Hutcheson; and SVP Joe Householder. Oversight was to be provided pro bono by chief business development officer Sam Lythgoe and global chairman and CEO AnnaMaria DeSalva, according to the FARA documents. 

“H&K’s work with WHO is aimed at helping ensure that vulnerable and hard-to-reach demographics have equal access to life-saving health and science information,” said a WHO spokesperson. 

The WHO contracted H+K after it came under attack by Trump and members of his administration over its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Trump, himself under fire for his handling of COVID-19, called the organisation “China-centric” and claimed the WHO receives most of its funding from the US. The WHO said the US provided less than 15% of its backing for its 2018-19 financial year, according to NPR. In May, Trump said the US would terminate its relationship with the WHO.  

“H+K made a FARA filing out of an abundance of caution, even though none of our work involves lobbying governments,” said an agency spokesperson. “The focus of our work with the WHO is helping understand how to reach vulnerable and vital geographic and demographic audiences with life-saving messages including through partnerships with credible third parties.”

H+K’s global revenue was down 9% last year due to the divestment of SJR into a standalone unit within WPP at the start of the year, according to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report


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