Oklahoma health officials pay public relations and marketing firm $ 3 million for COVID-19 messaging and reputation management

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The Oklahoma State Department of Health signed the contract with Saxum this summer. Saxum has been helping COVID-19 communication since the early days of the pandemic.


  • Catherine sweeney

The Oklahoma State Department of Health has awarded a local public relations and marketing firm a $ 3 million contract to help publicize the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that contract also included managing the brand for the state’s ailing public health lab, helping to develop and sell its program to the Legislature and more.

Saxum, an integrated digital media agency based in Oklahoma City, helped the agency answer media questions and hold briefings since the early days of the pandemic. At the time, the Department of Health paid the company $ 15,000 per month for support. The ministry and the firm signed a new contract this summer. Monthly payments were to increase – from $ 50,000 per month in summer to $ 65,000 per month in fall and winter, and $ 95,000 per month in 2022.

The contract spans several pages and includes several services. It falls into two categories: a state funded portion worth $ 1 million and a $ 2 million portion funded by federal grants.

In the state-funded portion, the first service listed is pandemic-related messaging, such as presenting articles on the department’s response to the pandemic to local media and writing talking points about it. Saxum was tasked with managing the reputation of the department and increasing trust in the agency.

The contract also covers messages on the state public health laboratory. This facility has been mired in controversy since late last year. First, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he was removing him from the biomedical center in central Oklahoma City, a move that immediately attracted the flashback lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and public health organizations across the country. The Department started to partially privatize the laboratory, using subcontractors to manage the workload. All the while the lab had to outsource critical tests, such as blood sampling from infants, as their existing protocols were under investigation. The department hired a new director for the lab – as well as the new pandemic response center created by the Stitt administration – and that director resigned after just four months. The border reported today that the laboratory is under federal investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the department refuses to explain why.

The contract calls on Saxum to help with several legislative departments, such as developing a communications strategy around the department’s legislative agenda in 2022 and helping the department manage and build relationships with legislators over the course of months preceding the legislative session.

In 2019, Stitt was a vocal critic of lobbyists hired by agencies. He issued a decree temporarily banning the practice.

“I have determined that it is not an appropriate use of state funds for a state agency, board or commission to spend taxpayer dollars to hire outside lobbyists to lobby them. state legislators on behalf of a state agency, board or commission, ”the order reads in part.

The other part of the contract uses $ 2 million in grants to reopen schools. He asks Saxum to “develop an outreach strategy to get schools to sign up to participate in the grants program.” This involved planning events with local county health departments, bringing in influencers and community leaders to raise awareness, presenting local media with stories about the program and more.

StateImpact filed the initial request for this contract in February. The department sent out the contract Thursday, the day of Julius Jones’ scheduled execution, an event that garnered widespread local and national media coverage.

The department and Saxum included two email statements with the contract.

From the Oklahoma State Department of Health:
“Throughout this unprecedented pandemic, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) has prioritized the provision of vital and essential information to the people of Oklahoma through our local, national and national media and community partners. The approach has been multifaceted in nature, responding and creating content for a wide variety of audiences in a transparent, timely and efficient manner. To do this, the department, like many other agencies, needed additional communications expertise and manpower to ensure that we were meeting the needs of Oklahomans across the state, using Saxum to support COVID-19 communications and marketing awareness.

OSDH is responsible not only for COVID-19 communication, but also to address topics related to community and family health, disease and prevention, as well as protective health. It has been very helpful to use a business to meet a critical need during very difficult times so that OSDH can continue to perform our other daily communication needs. This type of support in our state’s pandemic response efforts is exactly what federal COVID relief funding has been provided to, to help health services across the country. We have worked together to diligently provide open communications on COVID-19 precautions and public health recommendations, as well as to manage communications on COVID-19 vaccines. This has provided Oklahoma residents with the information they need to make decisions for their personal health and safety, and to understand why COVID-19 precautions are needed to protect those around them. “

From Saxum:
“The Saxum team have worked side-by-side with the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) since the start of the pandemic to help manage the high volume of media inquiries and communication needs. in order to effectively provide information to Oklahoma residents about COVID-19 precautions, recommendations, and COVID-19 vaccines. This includes dozens of local and national media requests daily and weekly on a range of COVID-related issues affecting multiple program areas within OSDH. Saxum will continue to provide execution support and strategic advice to OSDH as requested and needed over the next few months should COVID-19 cases increase again as a result of variants. “

This is a developing story. Come back to www.stateimpactoklahoma.org.


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