St. Louis County Health Department contracted with a marketing firm to combat vaccine hesitancy while others handled it in-house
CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page has surrounded himself with public relations professionals on the county’s payroll – which is why there are so many questions about the hiring of a New York-based PR firm for $2 million to craft the county’s COVID-19 awareness campaign.
Page has three people assigned to his office who do everything from writing his remarks to pitching stories to reporters, planning press conferences and producing videos of the county’s services. Two people are assigned to the Department of Health to handle public relations.
Add up all of their salaries, and the county is spending almost $413,000 a year on media and public relations.
Yet Page’s Department of Public Health leaders tell the I-Team their public relations staff of two didn’t have the bandwidth to create ads for TV, newspapers and radio to combat vaccine hesitancy in a county of one million people. The health department has administered 170,000 vaccines, according to the administration.
The I-Team contacted surrounding health departments including St. Louis City, Jefferson and St. Charles counties and found most conducted their pandemic messaging in-house.
Page’s political opponents are now questioning why the work couldn’t have been done by St. Louis County’s existing media relations staff, whether the lucrative PR campaign scored political points for Page by boosting his image and whether it was the best use of CARES Act funding.
Page’s spokesman, Doug Moore, did not make Page available for an interview regarding the contract with Fenton Communications, and referred to a statement Page read during his press briefing earlier this week.
“Some people have criticized public health officials for working with a firm to create and place ads that stress importance of getting the vaccine,” Page read. “Sadly, these are the same people who don’t support requiring masks and have consistently pushed back against the advice of medical experts and public health officials.”
County Council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days was among those who voted against a mask mandate Page recently issued without the council’s approval. A judge later overturned the mandate.
Days has since voted against other council members who have tried to pass an ordinance that would make refusing to wear a mask a misdemeanor punishable by jail time or a fine.
Days voted to support a resolution calling on all county residents to get vaccinated and told the I-Team she and the others who opposed Page’s mask mandate are working to craft one of their own.
She dismissed Page’s remarks about the Fenton Communications contract as “a deflection.”
“It’s not nailed down as to exactly what their role was except to elevate the county leadership,” Days said.
Days pointed to a slide within the proposal Fenton Communications sent to the county when it was vying for the contract. A picture of Page is faded in the background near the title “Elevate County Leadership.”
It references Interim Health Director Dr. Emily Douchette along with Page and summarizes a plan to “further amplify their messages” and “raise their profiles.”
It continues: “We will implement a communications plan that will increase their exposure to the public and continue to build trust with the people of St. Louis County.”
“We will lean into both Dr. Page’s and Dr. Douchette’s credentials as medical doctors and use metrics and stories to highlight the continued progress they have made to keep county residents safe,” the slide states.
5 On Your Side received an email pitch from Fenton Communications in June titled, “County Executive Sam Page available as spox as cases rise.” (Spox is an abbreviation for spokesperson).
It continued, “As cases continue to rise in the county, I’d like to offer County Executive Dr. Sam Page as an expert on the issue and spokesperson for any stories you might be doing about these new cases.” Several other media outlets have reported receiving the same story pitch.
St. Louis County Health Department spokesman Christopher Ave said he told the company to stop sending pitches about Page to local media outlets.
Fenton Communications has not yet responded to a request for comment from the I-Team, so it’s unclear whether any of its story pitches touting Page as an expert got any traction.
Ave also defended his decision to hire the firm, saying he and his fellow health department spokeswoman, former KSDK reporter Sarah Dayley, could not manage the creation of an ad campaign complete with creating and buying ads in local media alone.
He said Page did not appear in any of the ads the company ultimately produced and spent $900,000 to put on local airwaves and in newspapers — about $35,000 of which was spent on ads airing on KSDK so far this month.
Another $355,000 covered the cost of creating those ads. And $100,000 paid for a new website focused on vaccines.
In all, Page’s office said the company produced 12 radio ads, 82 videos, four ads for broadcast, 104 banner ads, 207 social media ads, six billboards and three print ads.
And, he noted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will be reimbursing the county for the cost of the contract.
That doesn’t matter much to Days.
“You’re spending taxpayer dollars, we want to know what are you doing with taxpayer dollars, regardless of where they come from,” she said.
Other health departments have handled the cost of pandemic messaging differently.
Ave noted the state of Missouri spent money on an outside firm for COVID awareness.
Missouri Health Department leaders confirmed they spent $5 million on a contract with St. Louis-based Elasticity for the current “Stronger Together” campaign, which includes the www.MOStopsCovid.com site and the MO VIP incentive program advertising.
Health department leaders in St. Charles and Jefferson counties told the I-Team they handled vaccine and pandemic messaging with their own staff.
The city’s health department leaders said they had a contract with a marketing firm before the pandemic hit, but have since started using the city’s existing Communications Division to spread the word about the health department and its pandemic response to save money.
Days believes the county’s PR staff could have done the same.
The county filmed Days and her fellow north St. Louis County Councilman Shalonda Webb urging residents to get vaccinated, but said she didn’t see it.
She questioned why the county was able to film and distribute that, and not handle the rest of the county’s pandemic response.
Ave sent an email to Days and Webb outlining how the ad ran on the county’s social media accounts and elsewhere, and added Webb and Days were the only council members who asked the county’s health department to help them spread the word about vaccines.
Days also said she’s not sure whether the PR firm was effective, noting vaccine rates in her predominantly Black north St. Louis County district are at 24%.
“I don’t see an appreciable difference in the rate of vaccinations in my community, so that is something else that concerns me greatly,” Days said.
Ave disputed Days’ figures, saying zip codes in north St. Louis County have shown the highest jumps in vaccine rates.
The following is a list of media relations staff on the county’s payroll:
- Doug Moore, former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter now serves as Page’s Chief Communications Officer.
- Annual salary: $110,884.80
- Cristina Fletes, former St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer and videographer.
- Annual salary: $75,004.80
- Elizabeth Eisele, former KMOV producer now working as a deputy to Moore.
- Annual salary: $52,000.00
- Christopher Ave, former St. Louis Post-Dispatch political editor now serving as spokesman for St. Louis County Department of Public Health
- Sara Dayley’s, former KSDK reporter now serving as deputy to Ave.
Originally Appeared Here