Did special briefings for commentators help shape a favourable government narrative on vaccines?

Communications strategies have become part of government work these days. But in a three-part series, Kate MacNamara looks at cases when the cause of communication has become bogged down in spin and murky disclosure.

Part 3:Academics’ role in shaping the Covid response message

Officials have released the names of 21 “Covid commentators” who were selected for special government briefings earlier in the pandemic because of the likelihood that they would be called on by media for comment about government work and announcements.

Documents released under the provisions of the OIA suggest that the advance briefings the group received in 2020, were, at least in part, an effort to flatter the Government’s slow progress on vaccine procurement.

The “commentators” are mostly academics and many say they were either unaware of, or unaffected by, any official effort to shape their commentary.

Updates by officials to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other ministers say that proactive briefing of the “commentators” helped, at times, to achieve positive media coverage.

The updates span a four-month period, September to December 2020, and were provided by the Vaccine Taskforce, which was led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and was comprised of officials from across government; its main work was the advance purchase of four vaccine candidates and spanned August to December, 2020.

In response to an Official Information Act request, MBIE provided a list of the commentators who received advance briefings on the Taskforce work.

• Ian Town, Ministry of Health
• Professor Sue Crengle, Otago University
• Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, University of Auckland
• Professor Nikki Turner, University of Auckland
• Associate Professor Nikki Moreland, University of Auckland
• Professor David Murdoch, Otago University
• Dr Matire Harwood, University of Auckland
• Professor Ian Frazer, The University of Queensland
• Associate Professor James Ussher, Otago University
• Dr Graeme Jarvis, Medicines New Zealand
• Dr John Taylor, University of Auckland
• Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
• Professor Graham Le Gros, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research
• Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, University of Auckland
• Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Ministry of Health
• Professor Shaun Hendy, University of Auckland
• Professor Michael Baker, Otago University
• Professor Michael Bunce, Environmental Protection Authority
• Gail Marshall, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research
• Dacia Herbulock, Science Media Centre

In October, 2020, when the Government announced its advance purchase of the Pfizer vaccine, a progress report noted:

“We worked closely with Taskforce agencies on key communications collateral to support the Pfizer announcement. We worked with Pfizer to co-ordinate the timing of the press release and ensure consistent messaging for Q&As. Key stakeholders – especially those likely to be approached by media for comment – were provided with a ‘heads up’ prior to the announcements going out. A number of these stakeholders have provided positive public comment as a result. The announcement received widespread coverage in New Zealand (52 mentions in media articles) with a generally positive sentiment.”

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said that briefing experts formed part of New Zealand’s “world leading [Covid] response … it also ensured they were able to provide commentary for media which was vital in helping counter some prevalent misinformation”.

MBIE’s Simon Rae, manager International Science Partnerships, echoed the sentiment.

“Right from the start, we identified that in order to support New Zealanders’ confidence in the vaccines we bought, there was a need to take a science-based approach using trusted voices. Giving key stakeholders – people identified as trusted science communicators who were likely to be approached for media comment – a ‘heads-up’ prior to the announcement was intended to ensure they had the information they needed to comment accurately and factually about the vaccine,” he said.

It is clear from the reports that the Taskforce officials were concerned with promoting an understanding of, and trust in, both the science and the safety of vaccines.

For example, the reports note working with vaccination specialist and University of Auckland Associate Professor, Helen Petousis-Harris, as a “credible and independent voice” to support “communication objectives” that centred on both science and safety.

However, the Taskforce communications specialist, Karl Ferguson, also appeared focused on casting a favourable light on the Government’s vaccine strategy itself, as well as its progress.

“A key focus continues to be identifying proactive opportunities to demonstrate to New Zealanders the progress that is being made in implementing the vaccine strategy,” the report for the week of September 11 noted.

Ferguson’s Taskforce work also included the co-ordination of seemingly politicised vaccine announcements, including a six-day delay in the release of the Pfizer vaccine purchase announcement during the 2020 election campaign. The deal was inked on October 6, announced by government ministers on October 12, and New Zealanders went to the polls on October 17.

Ferguson’s work extended to working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) to “proactively capture information from posts [embassies and consulates abroad] on announcements which may have an impact on New Zealand, in particular Australia”.

This work was noted in the September 11 report, when New Zealand had no bilateral vaccine purchase agreements and was late, relative to other countries, in starting the purchasing process (the Cabinet put in place a $600m facility for the taskforce to negotiate vaccine purchases on August 10, more than a month after Pfizer first contacted both the taskforce and the then Health Minister, David Clark to talk about its vaccine candidate).

Talks could not commence with Pfizer, and a non-disclosure agreement covering the review of the company’s vaccine information could not be signed, until after the August 10 Cabinet meeting.

The Ferguson update promised a “no surprises approach” to “media management” and noted the MFAT information “will allow us to respond proactively, such as developing key messages, briefing stakeholders etc when required”.

How effective were efforts to manage the narrative?

In an email exchange, microbiologist and Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, Siouxsie Wiles, described the advance briefings as a, “‘heads up’ so that we commentators could answer media questions straight away. This reduced the time taken to respond to media inquiries.”

Wiles has been among the most quoted and vocal scientists in the New Zealand media, and has sometimes been controversial for her very strong support for the Government’s Covid “elimination policy”.

“I didn’t have any lengthy discussions with the taskforce around communications other than declining any support as I wish to remain independent,” Wiles said.

The “progress reports” to ministers in November 2020 also reveal that Taskforce officials were engaged in talks with both Wiles and Te Punaha Matatini, the research institute at the University of Auckland where Wiles is a principal investigator, to provide “potential content” and “help tell the vaccine science story to the public…”.

An MBIE spokesperson confirmed the taskforce did not proceed in commissioning any work from Wiles or Te Punaha Matatini.

There were at least three advance briefings of the “commentators” between October and December, 2020, each preceded the public announcement of a vaccine purchase by roughly a week (ministers announced the Pfizer purchase in October, a Johnson & Johnson purchase in November and Novavax and AstraZeneca purchases in December).

More ad hoc help by officials also appears to have been provided to some commentators.

The reports note that immunologist and director of the Malaghan Institute, Professor Graham Le Gros, received help from the taskforce in advance of a radio interview.

“We supported key commentator (Professor Graham Le Gros) with background information and key messages ahead of an interview he undertook with Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB,” the report for the week of September 25 noted.

Asked this week about that support, Le Gros said he’d been in contact with the MBIE prior to the interview, mainly “prodding” officials over the slow pace of vaccine purchasing.

The document he received in advance of the Hosking interview, he said, was “pretty banal and very much all about how the Government was going to be using the Co vax facility [a multilateral purchasing scheme that was ultimately superseded by bilateral agreements].”

Graeme Jarvis, head of Medicines NZ, a pharmaceutical industry group, and also on the list of “commentators” has been pointedly critical of the Government’s “very slow start” to vaccine purchasing in 2020.

While Jarvis was listed among the “Covid commentators”, he said he wasn’t aware of it.

Many of the listed commentators also held a variety of roles advising the Government, and, through their respective employers, some provided additional Covid-related work.

At the time, Jarvis was part of MBIE’s Covid-19 Vaccine Strategy Science and Technical Advisory Group.

Shaun Hendy, who was then the director of Te Punaha Matatini (TPM), was equivocal about whether the Government’s intent in the briefings was nebulous or worrying: “possibly if the goal was to get favourable [media] coverage and they ended up being not as open as they might have been, but to me it feels more like when the government briefs journalists under embargo.”

Hendy, who is a professor of physics, and was heavily involved at the time in providing modelling work through TPM to the government, said he only attended one advance briefing and, while it was interesting, he said it wasn’t much related to the kinds of questions he was fielding from the media at the time.

Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, said he too attended just one of the advance briefings. The remote briefing, he said, covered vaccine science, plans for the vaccine rollout, the Medsafe approval process for vaccines and a progress report on the vaccine portfolio that the taskforce had assembled.

He described it as: “nothing unexpected, just good news that there was the outline of a plan.”

Karl Ferguson, who was paid $133,600 by MBIE (through his company Arkus Communications) to provide the taskforce with communications advice, declined to comment on the work.

MBIE said Ferguson led the communications work of the taskforce full-time through a critical four-month period, roughly September to December, 2020.

Ferguson currently provides “communications and engagement services” to the Health Transition Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), which is leading a plan to transform the structure of the country’s health system.

The value of Ferguson’s contract work to DPMC totals $381,000 (excluding GST) for a little under a year’s work (there are two contracts, they run from May 24, 2021 to November 24, 2021, and from November 24, 2021 to April 30, 2022).

IN THIS SERIES:

• Part 1: ‘Social listening reports’: Why won’t Government release them?

• Part 2: Three Waters, the $4m PR campaign and zero transparency

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