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World Health Organization Hired PR Firm To Identify Celebrity ‘Influencers’ To Amplify Virus Messaging

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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  • The World Health Organization hired a high-powered public relations firm to seek out so-called influencers to help build trust in the organization’s coronavirus response.
  • WHO paid $135,000 to the firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies, according to documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 
  • WHO has come under intense scrutiny for amplifying the Chinese government’s false claims about the coronavirus. 
  • Hill and Knowlton proposed identifying celebrities and other social media users with clout to ‘amplify’ WHO’s messaging about the pandemic.

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.

According to documents filed with the Justice Department this week, WHO inked a $135,000 contract on May 1 with Hill and Knowlton Strategies to craft a public messaging strategy.

“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.”

(Photo by NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP via Getty Images)

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 28, 2020. (NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP via Getty Images)

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.”

WHO has come under intense scrutiny, especially in the United States, for a series of inaccurate assessments of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Jan. 14, WHO amplified claims from the Chinese government that coronavirus 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. (RELATED: China’s Propaganda Machine Loves WHO Official Bruce Aylward) 

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.

President Donald Trump said in April that he would stop funding WHO because of its handling of the pandemic.

“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 WHO on July 6 that it will withdraw its membership next year.

Hill and Knowlton said in the filing that it registered as a foreign agent of WHO “as a matter of prudence.” WHO receives funding from member-states and private organizations. The United States is by far the largest contributor to 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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