St. Louis County councilmembers question $2 million COVID-19 PR campaign with outside firm

Missouri

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – There are mounting questions about exactly “what” St. Louis County is getting for spending up to $2 million with an outside PR firm for multimedia messaging regarding the new surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the Delta variant of the virus.  

At the St. Louis County Council’s ‘Committee of the Whole’ meeting this week, Republican Councilmember Tim Fitch, asked about how Fenton Communications was selected for the large contract.   

The company’s presentation to win the project aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccinations featured a plan to “raise the profiles” of County Executive Sam Page and the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Emily Doucette of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.   

Page is the county’s elected leader.  

The Fox 2 newsroom has received an unsolicited e-mail from Fenton Communications offering County Executive Page as an “expert and spokesman” for reports about the rise in COVID-19 cases.   

St. Louis County already has full-time communications staff for both the county executive and the department of public health to handle media requests.    

“I think that puts up some red flags about the way this money is being spent. It’s $2million and it’s being paid for by the federal government through the CARES fund,” Republican Councilmember Mark Harder said.  

“That’s where we start to border on the difference between buying an advertising package to get more people vaccinated to running a PR campaign for someone who doesn’t have a very good image right now in this community and somebody that’s an elected official.” 

He was referring to Page.   

Harder is among those now considering calling Fenton Communications officials before the county council to answer questions about what exactly St. Louis County is getting for its money.   

“We can certainly look into that because there are several questions particularly about the Fenton contract that I’m just not comfortable with,” Democrat Council Chairwoman, Rita Days told the ‘Committee of the Whole.’  

“I think we could work out how to get that done, yes.” 

Jennifer Hahn, managing director for Fenton Communications, was non-committal, Wednesday, about appearing before the county council.  

She did share examples of the company’s work that will appear on social media and TV in St. Louis.   

Fenton Communications has offices in New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco.   

In an email to Fox 2, Hahn said, in part:   

“Our agency is honored to serve St. Louis County on this federally-funded effort to protect the health and safety of its residents. We are working to amplify public health guidance and encourage greater participation in the region’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. As the Delta variant seriously endangers people’s health, we are encouraged and hopeful that vaccination rates are increasing, particularly in areas where residents are especially vulnerable.” 

The editorial board of our partners at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has raised questions about using an outside PR firm with billing rates, for example, of $85 an hour for a receptionist and $55 an hour for an intern, listed in its proposal to St. Louis County.  

“Why are you paying so much in ‘back room’ salaries and production and not on the media ‘buy’ or the message itself, which is what you’re hiring these people for?” Harder questioned.   

A St. Louis County spokesman provided Fox 2 News with a Fenton Communications document showing budget allocations of $349,991 as of Aug. 17 for TV, radio, and print messaging.   

Page told Fox 2 News he was not aware of the contract’s details and pointed out that he did not award it, the health department did.   

Most importantly, he said, it was getting results. The questions being raised were politically charged, he said.

“That communications contract is similar to what you see in other parts of the country when the local public health officials are making an extraordinary commitment to getting people engaged in a conversation around vaccines, around wearing a mask, all the things you need to do to protect your loved ones,” Page said.  

“That extra effort by our health department is something we’re very proud of.  That’s why you’re seeing an uptick in vaccination rates in our most vulnerable areas.” 

The contract has tremendous value for the county, politicizing it does not, he said.  

In the pursuit of full transparency, that COVID messages produced by Fenton Communications on behalf of St. Louis County can be seen on Fox 2 airwaves. 

In fact, of the up-to $2 million contract awarded to Fenton, they’ve spent nearly $40,000 to air messages on FOX 2.   

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