The WHO Hired A PR Firm. Good Luck With That.

The World Health Organization (“WHO”) is paying PR firm Hill + Knowlton (“H+K”) $135,000 over the span of six weeks to assess its problems, identify its potential advocates and detractors, and test its messaging.

Good luck with that.

The news, revealed in a recent story at the Daily Beast, provides a link to the public filing on the deal, which includes what looks like a “statement of work” (or “SOW”) on what the WHO will get.

It’s cutting-edge thinking, circa-1950, wrapped in an approach that confuses medium with message and appears to have been written by someone who didn’t too terribly well in high school English class.

First off, diagnosing the WHO’s communications problem should take about a half hour, not six weeks.

I just spent 10 minutes on its website and I still can’t tell you what it does, how it does it, or why anybody should care. There’s no simple description or declaration of purpose on the home page, and the links below the “About US” header in the site’s footer produce lengthy lists which, if items are clicked, bring up dense pages of notices and links that still fail to add up to any sort of picture of what’s going on.

At least the UN has a sorta purpose statement on its home page — “Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet” — though it would be far better if it read “The most difficult collaboration is better than the easiest war.”

Was it the WHO’s job to identify an emergent Covid-19 and not just warn the world but help rally the fight against it? I have no idea; it could be responsible for my cable TV not working, for all I know.

Is it discovering the next potential pandemic right now? No clue. How has it helped lessen or eradicate the conditions that give rise to diseases? I couldn’t tell you.

I think the Gates Foundation contributes 9% of the WHO’s total budget, but I can’t tell what it funds (the Gates Foundation site is great, BTW, but it tends to substitute soaring platitudes about purpose in lieu of simple, declarative statements about what happens where, for how much, and with what results).

In its SOW overview, H+K explains that “…there has been criticism and assertions levels against the WHO…”

Well duh. Detractors, whether they’re well meaning or conspiracy theorists, have been all but invited to voice their concerns.

Now to the SOW’s promise to “understand the understanding,’ which should take all of ten minutes.

No, less…here it is in two sentences: Americans are suspicious of global multilateral entities or thinking, whether the UN, NATO, or issues like climate change. Best case estimates are that maybe half of us even possess passports.

No amount of identifying or trying to spin “influencers” will change this fact, though trying could certainly absorb many months of PR agency fees.

Nevertheless, H+K will attack this unreal challenge and assembled a bevy of staffers with titles that sound relevant and very senior, none of whom will actually do much work other than eyeball reports before they go to the WHO along with thousands of dollars added to the invoice. The actual “work” will be conducting the aforementioned influencer research, which will likely get accomplished by a junior staffer pushing a search button on some online platform that tracks such info.

The other deliverable will be an “online survey” to measure their perceptions of WHO and other international health organizations, and test their receptivity to certain TBD messages. This, too, will require some serious button pushing, and then all those high-priced execs billing for having nodded their approval.

The plan relies on thinking that was cutting-edge back in the 1950s, when conversations were somewhat controlled by established mediators, such as self-designated opinion leaders (like well-known journalists), and the official “voices” of respected institutions. Those days are long gone, and pretending that tracking Twitter followers is the same thing as witnessing how many people Walter Lippmann influenced is, well, inane.

The WHO’s problem isn’t what its friends and critics think, it’s what it chooses to tell them.

Being clear, transparent, and true to what it does is infinitely more important than trying to game a system (that no longer exists) to ensure people will embrace it.

Also, I find it somewhat hilarious that a communications plan was communicated so poorly; just consider the imprecision, poor grammar, run-on sentences, and typos that constitute the scope of H+K’s research (lifted without edits from the SOW):

  • The scientific, medical and health community – to ensure they believe and advocate the advice given
  • Media – to ensure that articles are balanced in a time of concern verging on panic and uncertainty
  • NGOs – to ensure peer groups and local grassroots organizations endorse the role of WHO and its advice
  • The informed public – those that read everything and use their own channels and networks to validate or invalidate claims

But who am I to slight some worthless blather that resulted in a $135,000 contract?

Perhaps the ultimate genius of the program is not that it generated a huge payout for little work, but that its real deliverable is “a program framework,” which is PR agency secret code for another plan that’ll cost even more!

H+K got the WHO to pay it to write another proposal.

It’s too bad, bordering on tragic. The WHO is important, I think, and its challenges aren’t complex since they’re mostly self-inflicted. There just needs to be some serious, honest, and blunt speaking truth to power.

Instead, it’ll get a status quo approach that satisfies its status quo approach.

Good luck with that.

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