Alaska health department is set to spend more than $3.2 million in federal aid for COVID-19 communications

One firm, led by a Dunleavy insider, was awarded a contract through “emergency procedures” in June
Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 8:28 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has hired public relations firms to help with COVID-19 communications. Two firms are set to be paid as much as $3.2 million from Alaska’s federal coronavirus relief funding.

Blueprint Alaska received a two-month contract for $440,000 in June. Jason Grove, the procurement manager for the state health department, said that contract was approved through “emergency procedures.”

The Anchorage-based public relations firm was hired to help “the department’s ongoing efforts to educate Alaskans on mitigating COVID-19, to keep Alaska residents and visitors healthy and safe as our state reopens and eases restrictions.”

Elizabeth Manning, the communications manager for the DHSS, said Blueprint Alaska has been helping with multiple tasks including messaging on social media, mailing out information to Alaskans and setting up a few events.

There have been daily conversations between the firm’s parent company Thompson Co. and the DHSS which takes the lead on strategy and runs everything by subject matter experts.

The sheer quantity of communications work needed during the pandemic meant the department required extra help, Manning said. From informing Alaskans about COVID-19 safety to explaining how the vaccine will be distributed.

“There was a time earlier in the pandemic when we were often asked by members of the public if we could do more public messaging – PSAs [public service announcements] in particular,” Manning said. “Having these contractors has really helped fill those gaps in messaging.”

Other state health departments in Oklahoma, Hawaii and Connecticut have also paid public relations firms to help with communications work during the pandemic. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat of Hawaii, criticized its state’s health department for using coronavirus relief funds in that way.

In Alaska, nonpermanent staff were hired initially, but the department realized it needed outside assistance. “We knew that we had to get messaging out there, and we had to communicate with Alaskans,” said Clinton Bennett, the department’s communications director.

That led to the hiring of Blueprint Alaska.

The contract was approved by Bennett and Sana Efird, a deputy commissioner, through “emergency procedures” in place because of the pandemic. Those procedures mean that the contract did not have to go through a normal competitive bidding process and the firm could begin working immediately.

The contract has been extended three times and is set to run until the end of April. The firm can be paid up to $1 million from federal COVID-19 aid for the services provided.

Sarah Erkmann Ward, the president of Blueprint Alaska, signed off on the contract with the state. She said, as a matter of practice, that she does not comment on contracts where she is the contractor. Further questions were referred to DHSS.

Erkmann Ward previously worked as a spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s transition team. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the state health department’s decision to hire Erkmann Ward’s firm for COVID-19 communications.

Bennett also did not immediately respond to a request for comment about that decision.

A second $2.2 million contract was awarded to Brilliant Media in October and is set to run through June. It can be extended for another year, but there is no set budget for that extension.

The Brilliant Media contract was put out through a formal bidding process in August. The Anchorage-based public relations firm was hired in part to create and place radio and television advertisements related to COVID-19.

Advertisements have been placed on KTUU-TV and KYES-TV which are owned by Alaska’s News Source. Nancy Johnson, Alaska’s News Source’s general manager, would not confirm how much the news station had been paid to run those advertisements.

Debra Reinwand, the president of Brilliant Media, would not answer questions about the contract, and referred questions to Bennett.

Thompson Co. also directly assisted DHSS with COVID-19 communications. When the vaccine arrived in Alaska, the company filmed its arrival and the initial distribution.

Journalists were not allowed in to cover some of those events.

Bennett said at the time, that was to do with COVID-19 safety. “By using this format we are able to help minimize exposure risk of COVID-19 for patients, providers, and news staff by limiting the number of individuals within health care facilities for these events,” he said.

The two contracts were made available to Alaska’s News Source through a public records request. A third public relations company, Northwest Strategies, was also hired by the DHSS on an emergency basis until October for television and radio advertising work for COVID-19.

That contract was not immediately available from the state health department as of Thursday evening.

Jill Burke contributed to this report.

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