HHS ad blitz sputters as celebrities back away

HHS ad blitz sputters as celebrities back away

“This is a boondoggle,” said an HHS official, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive departmental project. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic … we could use that quarter of a billion dollars to buy PPE [personal protective equipment]Do not advertise PSAs with C-list celebrities. “

So far, only three celebrities have taken public service advertisements – Quaid, Winans, and Lemmer – with Quaid and other potential attendees reconsidering or dropping their involvement after a POLITICO report on Friday about the campaign’s unusual roots. A hoped-for recording with TV presenter Dr. Mehmet Oz also collapsed late last week, and representatives of other celebrities told POLITICO on Monday that they had little to no interest in joining the effort amid the exam.

“It would be misconduct for my client,” said the representative of a celebrity on the administration’s wish list, asking for anonymity to avoid associating the client’s name with a politically sensitive topic. “There are other ways to raise awareness about coronavirus than working with the Trump administration.”

The campaign had been plagued by the planning of snafus and lukewarm interest since it launched in August. The organizers provided actors, singers, and other artists to conduct volunteer interviews with senior health officials in the administration, including Medicaid chief Seema Verma. But some of the best-known names were instead used for interviews with infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, whose jam-packed schedule and recent vocal cord surgery served as a bottleneck.

“It was a total mess,” said one person involved in the process, who described a rush to produce at least 20 public notices by Election Day, a time-consuming process that involves significant planning, recording, editing and post-production for each Celebrity interview. “The team should have recorded one celebrity a day. Instead, they only recorded one a week or less.”

One key issue: The video company recommended by HHS to run the campaign had problems meeting deadlines, keeping staff and even finding the contact information of celebrities to take part in the videos, said three people with knowledge of the operation and verified by POLITICO Documents.

This company, DD&T, is run by a filmmaker who had no experience of public health campaigning in the United States and is also the business partner of Caputo, the Trump loyalist who was spokesperson before he left earlier this month of the Ministry of Health acted.

“They had no reason to be the people working on this campaign,” said the person involved in the process added. “They had no connection with film crews, companies or anything.”

DD&T owner Den Tolmor did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats have investigated the campaign, claiming it was an effort directed by Trump officials to help the president.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s select committee on coronavirus, said in a statement to POLITICO that he was “alarmed” by reports that the administration was “using tax money on what appears to be nothing but” a PR campaign in the weeks leading up to a presidential election. “

“These reports also suggest that administrative officials are trying to pass these contracts on to their own business partners,” added Clyburn.

DD&T is currently subcontracting at Atlas Research, a company hired by HHS for $ 15 million in August to begin running the advertising campaign. Atlas Research referred questions about the campaign to the HHS Public Affairs Office, which defended the goals and pace of the campaign.

“There is an urgent and ongoing need for public education about the prevention and treatment of Covid-19,” said HHS spokesman Mark Weber. “The news and materials development schedule had everything to do with following the steps required to obtain contractor services. It had nothing to do with choice.”

However, within the Department of Health there are serious concerns about the advertising campaign, which Caputo said was “requested” personally by Trump and is being funded with $ 300 million being abruptly withdrawn from the Centers for Disease Control.

“There is a lack of clarity about why we are running this campaign and using all of this money,” said an HHS official with knowledge of the campaign. “To me it seems like a public relations campaign, not a public health campaign.”

A bumpy start

Shortly after Caputo transferred $ 300 million from the CDC to fund the new nationwide “Combat Despair” campaign, planning efforts were stepped up in early summer. The Department of Public Health placed a $ 15 million contract with Atlas Research on August 26 and a $ 250 million contract with research firm Fors Marsh on September 1. Fors Marsh announced that it won the contract by emphasizing its evidence-based approach to communication and that it is working with the Democrats’ probes.

In August, the campaign organizers began creating a wish list of several dozen celebrities to match Trump officials in nationwide commercials – including a starring role for Medicaid chief Verma, who is not a doctor but a longtime advisor to Vice President Mike Pence .

Verma would have been suitable for interviews with “favorite celebrities” like Joel, Swift, Timberlake, singer Lady Gaga, and more than half a dozen others. This is evident from a planning document distributed this month in the Department of Health and Human Services and received by POLITICO. Meanwhile, CDC director Robert Redfield would have been matched with “preferred celebrities” like Joel and musician Garth Brooks, and officials like Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams were also matched with prominent partners.

However, two people involved in the project said it was unclear which celebrities were actually targeted. Health Department officials also said some Trump officials may not have fully understood how Caputo and his team intended to use them in the campaign. Meanwhile, publicists for some celebrities on the wish list denied knowledge of the campaign – for example, a representative from Joel said he was never asked to participate – and others did not respond to requests for comment.

Verma herself did not know about celebrities compared to her, said one person with knowledge of their conversations, adding that the extent of Verma’s understanding the campaign was largely based on a brief conversation with Caputo and the planners’ later efforts to find open time on their calendar.

The Trump administration turned to Dr. Oz in the hope that the well-known TV doctor could conduct an interview with Fauci as part of the campaign. A representative for Oz confirmed Monday that HHS had tried to arrange a conversation with Oz and Fauci, but said there are no plans for the interview. “Nothing has ever progressed,” said the spokesman.

Weber, the HHS spokesman, confirmed that officials like Verma were being approached as part of the campaign and that Caputo “mentioned all sorts of celebrities” in planning the initiative.

“Michael Caputo had a vision for the campaign that should be carried out with expertise from across the department,” said Weber, the HHS spokesman. “He has spoken to many people inside and outside the government about how to participate.”

Caputo allies help steer the project

Caputo was unable to personally implement his vision after taking a vacation on September 16. A few days earlier, POLITICO reported that its team had disrupted weekly CDC bulletins on the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a subsequent Facebook Live video, Caputo accused government scientists of attempting to undermine Trump’s re-election and warned of armed uprisings.

Caputo also vowed in the video that, despite scrutiny by Democrats, the “marital media” and “leftist scholars”, the advertising campaign would not be stopped to prevent the Trump administration from spreading good news. He also returned to a topic he had addressed in episodes of a taxpayer-funded podcast launched by the Health Department this spring: American morale was dwindling, and the ad campaign would help “bring America back”.

“The president created the strongest economy in history in the United States, certainly in modern times.” [and] he’ll do it again, “said Caputo said in a podcast episode on June 5th. “But who is going to solve the despair that comes from it?”

Caputo, who announced last week that he was diagnosed with cancer, declined to comment on his role in the ad campaign.

Although Caputo was absent, much of the strategy, planning, and coordination of the advertising campaign continued to be driven by two people closely related to him.

Tolmor, who paid Caputo for his public relations work before Caputo entered the health department in April, oversaw the collection of the footage and the preparation of the pressure-sensitive adhesives, according to Caputo’s HHS ethics form. Two people involved in the process said Tolmor and his small team at DD&T were overwhelmed with the task. The employees came and left the project in a revolving door.

Madeleine Hubbard, Caputo’s assistant and 2020 graduate of the University of Illinois, also took a hands-on role in shaping the multi-million dollar public health campaign, according to three people who know about the effort.

Hubbard – whose résumé does not list any prior public health communications or video production skills – previously served as University of Illinois campus president for the conservative organization Turning Point USA, and she was an intern with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill .) Before moving to the health department in June. Hubbard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Weber, the HHS spokesman, insisted that 22-year-old Hubbard’s role be focused on logistics.

“Madeleine Hubbard is a special assistant in ASPA and her elementary school [role] plans, “said Weber.” Madeleine does not decide on content or strategy. “

But career officials have raised concerns that Hubbard has repeatedly exceeded her role as a planner in steering the taxpayer-funded campaign, said two people aware of those concerns. For example, this month Hubbard created a ladder for a campaign stating that she would personally help design billboards and choose which points of sale to target.

Hubbard also traveled to New Jersey last week to oversee a video shoot with Lemmer, the Hasidic musician. This was part of ongoing efforts by health officials to raise awareness of Covid-19 in the hardest-hit Orthodox Jewish community. Lemmer was introduced on a long distance conversation with Deputy Health Secretary Brett Giroir, a political officer who has served as the country’s “test tsar” for coronavirus. A representative from Lemmer did not respond to the request for comment.

Weber, the HHS spokesman, said Hubbard only helped coordinate the video footage with Lemmer.

Quaid in the spotlight

One of the campaign’s only successes was the booking of Quaid, the star of “The Parent Trap,” and a long-time presence in movies and television commercials – and the first celebrity to sit for a PSA shot after the video crew recalibrated to Finding celebrities who seemed to be reachable said two people involved in the campaign.

For example, Quaid had given one Interview with the Daily Beast in April, where he appeared to be praising Trump’s handling of the virus outbreak. Quaid had previously met Fauci and was interested in interviewing him for his new podcast “The Dennissance” at the same time.

Quaid was filmed in California on September 10th, where he recorded an interview with Fauci for his podcast. Once captured, Quaid was asked to answer additional questions that could be used for the PPE, such as: B. what he had learned from the conversation, according to the documents checked by POLITICO.

Tolmor’s team told Quaid that they wanted to use excerpts from his interview with Fauci for several short commercials. While Quaid’s far-reaching interview with Fauci included reflections on the high numbers of coronaviruses and the importance of vaccines, the actor’s optimistic approach provided good fodder for potential publicity, said one person involved in the process – exactly in line with the message, the Caputo had once provided for the campaign.

“How much do you think all this pointing did to get rid of this virus?” Quaid pondered Fauci in the interview that was taped on Sept. 10 and shared on his podcast. “I wonder what it would have been like in a year without elections that keeps going through my head.”

“As Americans we know we will get through this. We will all be fine,” added Quaid.

A representative from Quaid referred questions to a Instagram video that Quaid posted on Saturday night where the actor swore his attendance was solely to fight the pandemic, that he “wasn’t paid a dime” and that media coverage he believed to be inaccurate was rejected.

“The interview and PSA were about raising awareness about Covid-19 and what else we can do to prevent lives from being lost to this terrible, terrible virus,” Quaid said in the video. “It was about how important it is to wear a mask and distance yourself socially, and it wasn’t in any way political.”

Quaid’s representatives this week told the administration that the actor was planning to get out of the PSA campaign, a request HHS approved, according to two people with knowledge of the request. HHS declined to answer a question about whether Quaid had left the campaign.

Winans too recorded a video Late on Friday evening, she said her participation in the campaign was focused on public health. The gospel singer and Adams, the nation’s surgeon general, participated in a virtual interview for the PSA campaign on September 18.

“This interview emphasizes the importance of everyone wearing a mask, and it also gives us other instructions on how to get to the other side of this pandemic,” Winans said in the video. “It wasn’t political at all.”

Winans representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, officials said the health department is still looking potential cast members appearing on the PSAs or considering ways to reconstruct the campaign – more than a month after the start of the ambitious multi-million dollar campaign and only about a month before election day.

Two officials regretted that so much money had been allocated to a seemingly haphazard campaign.

“There are ways to educate the American people about the risks of the coronavirus,” said an HHS official. “That wasn’t the way to go.”


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