ProPublica reports today that the Department of Health and Human Services has hired the massive PR firm Ketchum to help win consumer trust about electronic medial records with funds from the stimulus. But, as ProPublica’s Sebastian Jones and Michael Grabell note, Ketchum has a controversial history of pushing propaganda during the Bush administration:
The irony? The firm chosen for the job — Ketchum Inc. — was hip-deep in controversy a few years ago for producing a series of fake TV news stories that violated a federal ban on propaganda. The company also drew fire for channeling taxpayer funds to a conservative pundit to promote the Bush administration’s education policies.
In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that video news releases developed by Ketchum to tout changes to Medicare under Bush’s prescription drug benefit were “covert propaganda” because they did not identify that the government was the source of the news reports. A 2005 GAO report found that similar video releases developed by Ketchum to promote No Child Left Behind also constituted “covert propaganda.”
Nancy Szemraj, a spokeswoman for the government’s health IT initiative, defended Ketchum’s $25.8 million contract, which calls for a “comprehensive campaign for communications and education,” to encourage doctors and hospitals to adopt health IT and to assure the public that their information will be safe:
Company spokeswoman Alicia Stetzer declined to answer questions about the $25.8 million contract, funded by the federal stimulus package. Nancy Szemraj, a spokeswoman for the government’s health IT initiative, said the PR firm won the contract over four other companies because of its ability to attract public acceptance.
“Ketchum has a long rich history of doing outstanding communication outreach work for large social marketing endeavors,” Szemraj said. “They are very capable of moving the needle, with has to happen here.”
She noted that Ketchum’s work helped HHS enroll 35 million people in the Medicare prescription drug program. And she said all of the firm’s marketing ideas would be reviewed by senior managers at HHS.
Szemraj’s assurance that all of Ketchum’s ideas will be “reviewed by senior managers at HHS” doesn’t guarantee that the firm’s old tactics won’t be used again. According to GAO, the “propaganda” videos produced by Ketchum for the prescription drug benefit were “reviewed and approved by CMS and HHS.” That said, Ketchum is a huge, award-winning firm that “has continued to draw government work” since the “propaganda” scandal, so their hiring does not necessarily mean that the Obama administration is expecting, seeking or will tolerate misleading work like the Bush administration did.
PRNewser first reported on Ketchum’s contract on March 25, noting that it will include “paid media support” and the creation of “communication products.”