The Oklahoma State Department of Health released a promotional video about the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, an initiative that partners with and is housed in the state's public health laboratory. Saxum was contracted to help manage communications about both. Photo credit: Oklahoma State Department of Health

Oklahoma health officials are paying $3 million to a PR and marketing firm for COVID-19 messaging and reputation management

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

  • Catherine Sweeney

The Oklahoma State Department of Health granted a local public relations and marketing firm a $3 million contract to help get the word out about the COVID-19 pandemic response. However, that contract also included brand management for the state’s embattled public health lab, help crafting and selling its agenda in the Legislature and more.

Saxum, an integrated digital media agency based in Oklahoma City, has been helping the agency respond to media questions and organize briefings since the early days of the pandemic. At the time, the health department paid the firm $15,000 a month for support. The department and the firm entered a new contract this summer. Monthly payments were scheduled to ramp up — from $50,000 per month over the summer, to $65,000 per month throughout the 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. 

Under the state-funded portion, the first service listed is pandemic-related messaging, such as pitching stories about the department’s pandemic response to local media and drafting talking points about it. Saxum was tasked with managing the department’s reputation and to grow trust in the agency.

The contract also covers messaging about the state’s public health laboratory. That facility has been mired in controversy since late last year. First, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he was moving it out of the biomedical hub in central Oklahoma City, a move that immediately drew blowback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and from public health organizations across the country. The department began partially privatizing the lab, bringing in contractors to handle the workload. All the while, the lab has had to outsource critical tests, such as infant blood sampling, because their existing protocols were being investigated. The department hired a new director for the lab — as well as the new pandemic response center the Stitt Administration created — and that director quit after only four months. The Frontier reported today that the lab is under federal investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the department refuses to explain why.

The contract instructs Saxum to aid in several legislative services, such as building a communications strategy around the department’s legislative agenda in 2022 and helping the department manage and build relationships with lawmakers during the months before the legislative session.

In 2019, Stitt was a vocal critic of agency-hired lobbyists. He issued an executive order temporarily banning the practice.

“I have determined that it is not a proper use of state funds for any state agency, board or commission to expend taxpayers’ money on the hiring of outside lobbyists to lobby the state legislators on behalf of any state agency, board or commission,” the order reads in part. 

The other portion of the contract uses $2 million in Reopening Schools Grant money. It instructs Saxum to “develop a strategy for outreach to get schools signed up to participate in the grant program.” That was to involve planning events with local county health departments, to bring on influencers and community leaders to raise awareness, to pitch local news outlets on stories about the program and more.

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

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

From the Oklahoma State Department of Health:
“Throughout this unprecedented pandemic, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) has prioritized providing life saving, critical information to Oklahomans through our local, state and national media and community partners. The approach has been multifaceted in nature, responding to and creating content for a wide variety of audiences in a transparent, timely and effective way. To accomplish this, the department, like many other agencies, required additional communications expertise and manpower to ensure we met the needs of Oklahomans across the state, utilizing Saxum to support COVID-19 communications and marketing outreach.

OSDH is tasked not only with COVID-19 communications, but also addressing community and family health, disease and prevention, and protective health topics. There has been great value in utilizing a firm to fulfill a critical need during very trying times so that OSDH could continue to execute our other daily communications needs. This type of support in our state’s pandemic response efforts is exactly what federal COVID relief funding was provided for, to help health departments across the nation. We have worked together to diligently provide open communications about COVID-19 precautions and public health recommendations, as well as manage COVID-19 vaccine communications. This has provided Oklahomans with the information they need to make decisions for their personal health and safety, and to understand why COVID-19 precautions are necessary to protect those around them.”

From Saxum:
“The Saxum team has worked side-by-side with the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) since early in the pandemic to help manage the high volume of media requests and communication needs to effectively provide information to Oklahomans about COVID-19 precautions, recommendations and the COVID-19 vaccines. This includes dozens of local and national media requests daily and weekly across a spectrum of COVID-related issues touching multiple program areas within OSDH. Saxum will continue to provide execution support and strategic counsel to OSDH as requested and needed over the coming months should COVID-19 cases once again surge in the wake of variants.”

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