DOH spends 250K in federal relief aid on marketing to help with COVID-19 messaging

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Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 at 5:21 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As Hawaii grapples with a worsening economic crisis and struggles to contain a surge in new COVID-19 infections, the state Health Department has paid a marketing firm nearly $250,000 to help with COVID-19 messaging, focus groups and surveys.

The contract rankled at least one U.S. senator on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz called the use of federal CARES Act dollars on a public relations firm wrong-headed. The funding was meant to provide emergency relief to states as they respond to the pandemic.

“While this may be allowed under the CARES Act, it is unwise to use precious relief dollars for polling and focus groups,” Schatz said, in a statement to Hawaii News Now.

“Our problems with messaging have to do with departments and key leaders disagreeing with each other and they will not be solved with market research. It is essential that we use cares act money directly to protect public health and to alleviate the financial pain caused by the pandemic.”

The contract is with Anthology Marketing Group, which has been tasked with providing COVID-19 research, messaging, surveys and media consultation, and runs from Aug. 3 to Dec. 28.

The contract says $238,704.97 was for the project and $11,247.78 is for tax.

The project includes qualitative research using focus groups; surveys of Hawaii residents; strategy message and development; creative planning and production; and media consultation. The department has its own communication unit and launched a Joint Information Center for the pandemic.

The purchase order was completed on July 30.

In a statement, Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the contract is necessary because of the importance of communications amid the pandemic.

“Delivering effective guidance and information for the public is essential in gaining consistent use of prevention measures to reduce the spread of the virus,” Okubo said.

“Research-based messages and methods are the most effective at reaching people we are not able to communicate with currently. This includes pockets of the population such as young adults, Pacific Islanders, and service industries. Research on awareness, behaviors and perceptions is the basis for effective public health communication and the nationally accepted standard for all health education and outreach efforts.”

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