Fors Marsh Group wins $250m-plus HHS contract for campaign to 'defeat despair'

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

The federal department asked bidding firms to craft a campaign that would “inspire hope” amid the pandemic. Critics worry it could be politicized.

Consultancy Fors Marsh Group has won the $250 million-plus contract for a Department of Health and Human Services integrated “public health and reopening America” COVID-19 campaign.

HHS awarded Fors Marsh the contract on Tuesday, a department spokesperson said via email. 

The campaign will be managed by the office of Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Caputo, a political appointee, said he could not comment on the decision until he was officially notified. An HHS spokesperson confirmed the award but declined further comment. 

Ben Garthwaite, CEO of Fors Marsh, said via email that his firm “proposed an evidence-based approach built upon principles of behavioral and social science” in its bid. It also “focused on understanding and meeting the needs of the communities hardest hit by COVID-19” and bringing in partners to help with media access and purchasing power.

“Two of our key large partners include VMLY&R and iHeartMedia, which will be integral to our creative execution and media outreach strategy,” he said.

Fors Marsh has worked on federal advertising and marketing campaigns, such as the U.S. Army’s recruitment advertising, the anti-drug push Above the Influence and the anti-smoking initiative The Real Cost.

“We have built our reputation conducting research and developing strategy addressing some of today’s greatest health challenges” such as opioid misuse, tobacco and alcohol use, sexual assault and suicide in the military, Garthwaite wrote. 

HHS has contracted the campaign to run for a base year through July 2021 with a possible year-long extension. The bulk of the money is set to be spent by January 2021, leading to complaints from Democrats that the push could be used for political purposes in an election year.

The push would provide information on therapies and vaccines during reopening; share best practices for businesses to operate and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy; distribute information on the phases of reopening and recovery; and build a coalition of spokespeople. The bulk of the campaign would be paid media and earned media distribution, with budget also allocated for program management and strategy evaluation, market research and message and material production. 

The effort would have a “large paid traditional and digital media component,” HHS documents stated, but would also include earned media and digital and social media outreach, including blogger and influencer relations and PSA development. 

Fors Marsh was one of 10 vendors listed on an NIH website eligible to bid for the campaign, though not all vied for the work. Several PR and marketing shops were listed as team members or partners of the vendors, but not all competed. 

Meanwhile on Twitter, Caputo has been sparring with critics of the initiative, some of whom have called the push expensive propaganda. 

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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