WHO Hires Global Public Relations Firm to Rebut Trump (1)

(Updated story with statement by Hill+Knowlton in last two paragraphs)

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The World Health Organization has hired public affairs firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies to counter criticism from the Trump administration about its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies began its work for the WHO on May 1, about two weeks after President Donald Trump temporarily suspended U.S. funding for the health body, which is part of the United Nations, according to forms filed this week with the Justice Department. Trump announced on May 29 that he was terminating the U.S. relationship with the WHO, claiming the organization had been overly deferential to China.

The firm said it would find what it referred to as “influencers” such as celebrities with large social media followings, “those with smaller but highly engaged followings” and well-regarded experts in order to “ensure there is trust in the WHO’s advice and that public health guidance is followed.”

“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 firm said in a contract that was included in its filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. While seeking to rebut criticism, the firm’s filing never explicitly mentioned Trump.

Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg
President Donald Trump speaks as Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, left, listens during a May 29 news conference in the Rose Garden where the president said the U.S. will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization.

During the first six weeks of work the firm said it planned to cultivate those “influencers” to engage the media, non-profit and grassroots organizations, the scientific and health community and the public. The firm quoted fees totaling $135,000 for its work in the U.S., U.K. and four other unnamed countries.

The firm said it would also survey “informed voters” to “establish a baseline measure of public awareness and perceptions of WHO” — particularly in comparison to organizations and agencies such as Doctors without Borders, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Bank. It then planned to “build a communications framework” to make sure the WHO’s messages about Covid-19 are heard, according to the filing.

The team working on the account includes H+K’s global chairman and CEO, AnnaMaria DeSalva, who is working pro bono, and Ron Hutcheson, a former journalist who had served as the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. Hutcheson didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from Bloomberg Government.

Ed Patterson, a spokesperson for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, said the firm made the Justice Department filing “out of an abundance of caution — even though none of our work involves lobbying governments.”

“The focus of our work with 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,” he said in an emailed statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan R. Wilson in Washington at mwilson@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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