The $500k contract for COVID-19 memes approved by then-Police Commissioner

"Sometimes shitty memes are effective."
"Sometimes shitty memes are effective." Photo credit: RNZ.

By Anusha Bradley of RNZ

The advertising agency Topham Guerin - which did political marketing for the Australian Liberal Party and the British Conservatives - was hand picked by former Police Commissioner Mike Bush for a $500,000 contract making memes in the fight against COVID-19.

The contract with Topham Guerin was meant to run for three months, but instead lasted just a few weeks.

The creative agency, founded by former 'Young Nats' Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, is known for creating viral social media content and delivering successful, if controversial, election campaigns for right-leaning political organisations. It has just been rehired to run the National Party's social media campaign this election.

At some stage prior to 2020, Topham met then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush at a "professional engagement event". He appears to have made an impression.

As New Zealand's borders closed, Bush consulted with the police director of strategic communications Paul Comer, who was seconded to the COVID-19 Response Operational Command Centre.

"He agreed TG [Topham Guerin] could provide valuable additional communications support at the early stages of the COVID response, due to the unpredictable nature at that point of the communications demands that would be required to respond to the pandemic, and TG's proven expertise in creating engaging and targeted social media content," police told RNZ.

On 20 March 2020, the day before Jacinda Ardern announced the 'alert level' COVID-19 response system, Topham flew to Wellington and set up shop at the COVID Operations Command Centre. The agency was producing its first social media memes for police and other government agencies four days later.

Bush used his delegated financial authority to approve the appointment. Like several other contracts at that time commissioned in response to the pandemic, the usual procurement rules were waived.

The contract stated five staff would deliver between "40-50 pieces of content daily" - though RNZ understands this KPI was only added when the contract was retrospectively signed in June and was not an actual requirement - between 1 April and 23 June 2020 up to a maximum value of $552,600 plus $80,400 expenses.

It didn't go to plan.

'Shitty memes'

Despite signing a three-month contract, the work only lasted three weeks.

The firm spent less than two weeks working with police before the contract was passed to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), which gave it only a further six days' work before terminating it altogether.

While some content was well received - including the black and yellow kiwi in heart with the words "Be kind, stay home, save lives" that was posted and retweeted by celebrities and influencers - much of it was not.

"The content was confusing - it lacked a consistent style that a considered communications campaign would have - or it was just plain boring," a former communications adviser who worked on the government response said. The advisor was one of three who spoke with RNZ about the contract on the condition of anonymity, to protect their careers.

Memes urging people to stay home were set against beautiful pictures of the outdoors, which some felt sent a confusing message.

One meme featuring a picture of Hobbiton had to be scrapped after police noted staff there had just lost their jobs. Others were not used at all.

On 25 March, the eve of the first national lockdown, the agency provided 20 pieces of content - approved by Bush - to be posted that day.

"All of them?" queried a police social media advisor in response.

"Yes - the commissioner would like all of them posted, need to increase the volume and frequency as we move to alert level 4 tonight," Topham replied.

Only a handful were eventually posted. Days later, when more social media content from the agency was sent over, Comer told the same media advisor to "just use whatever you think might work".

"Any advice on tone or sense check on anything welcome and appreciated," he added.

Police staff felt "under duress" to work with the agency but did not want to because of the "terrible content", according to a communications expert who worked on the official COVID-19 response.

They felt the Topham Guerin content often conflicted with that produced by the advertising giant Clemenger BBDO, which as an approved government supplier, had also been hired in March 2020 to work on the Unite Against COVID response.

"Topham Guerin were putting out non-branded shitty memes and we were having to counter them with proper messaging. We were dealing with a pandemic and were working with psychologists and comms experts to get the wording, tone and information right.

"It was a serious job and their claim to fame were shit memes. We spent more time trying to stop their content being posted than what actually went out."

Topham, however, defended his agency's work.

"Sometimes shitty memes are effective," he told RNZ via email from London.

'Slay this dragon'

The agency also ran into trouble over a remake of the 2009 viral "always blow on the pie" meme.

In the remake, officer Guy Baldwin refers to COVID-19 as the "invisible dragon", before adding: "Let's slay this dragon." The video was posted on police social media accounts on 31 March 2020.

But within hours of it being posted - and picked up by several news outlets - it was deleted and re-edited after concerns the dragon reference "might cause a bit of an issue with the Chinese community" given the virus appeared to have originated in Wuhan, China.

RNZ understands the video was shot off the cuff and not scripted by the agency.

According to emails released to RNZ, a senior police officer who regularly dealt with the Chinese consulate worried it could be "really, really sensitive about anything that could even potentially be critical of China".

Police said it received "verbal feedback from some individuals" who believed some members of the public "might misconstrue it to have a specific ethnic reference". It was quickly re-edited and replaced.

Before it was removed, the video had been viewed more than 200,000 times on police social media channels. The new version had been viewed 72,000 times a week after it was posted.

Bush, who had put Topham Guerin in touch with Baldwin, told RNZ that Topham did not report directly to him, but consulted him on content and he was happy with what it produced.

"No offence was ever intended by the reference [in the video], however, we did remove that reference to ensure no communities would be offended."

'Communication War Room'

Topham Guerin's brief from police was to help fight the "information war" already erupting in the early stages of the pandemic, according to official documents.

"COVID is an information war between clarity and confidence on one hand, and confusion and chaos on the other," Comer wrote to Topham the day the agency was appointed.

A briefing document describes the COVID-19 Operational Command Centre as a 'Communications War Room', and it appears the police hoped the agency's experience swaying elections would be useful in the fight against the virus.

"We are in an information war as well as an operation war. An information war model based on political campaigning methodology."

In response, Topham believed the social media communications thus far lacked a "clear strategy or any audience targeting at a demographic or geographic level".

To achieve this, an entire creative and digital unit should be "embedded" within the OCC, with oversight of all direct to public communications channels. More posts, more variety and increased engagement was also needed, Topham said.

How it ended

On 9 April - the ad agency's last official day of work on the response - Topham continued to press the need for the Unite Against COVID campaign to "ratchet up the tension and urgency" in the last days of alert level 4.

"The current tone of messaging and the creative for all the government campaign is becoming too familiar and too vanilla to the audience it is being served to.

"We strongly recommend evolving the creative branding to adopt bolder, more visually arresting imagery, that conveys the urgency of 'Stay home, save lives' whilst adding and testing other messaging that infers an extended lockdown if people are non-compliant."

It is unclear if his advice was heeded.

Some people involved at the time felt uneasy about the agency's work, given its association with centre-right political parties. "It was very risky having guys who prided themselves on working on Brexit."

Most of the content produced by the agency did not end up being used, a third former communications executive who worked on the response claimed.

"The thing that is really galling is they, years later, claimed they were critical in the response when they were at best a tangential aside to the response.

"We could not work out why they had been brought in."

Topham disputes the "controversial" label which the media has sometimes applied to the company.

"TG are proud to have worked with the government to provide support for the response to the COVID-19 crisis. TG does things differently, and we create work that gets results for our clients," Topham told RNZ.

By 7 April, more than 200 pieces of content were delivered. It was unclear exactly how many were used.

Police paid a total of $91,473 to the agency. DPMC paid for a further six days work totalling $62,437, including a daily rate of $9210 plus accommodation at Rydges Hotel and meals for five staff.

Bush said the agency's contract moved from police to DPMC when he stepped down as commissioner and moved to a new role at DPMC.

"The reason for TG's short tenure was that the Government COVID-19 response had a separate comms team and a duplication of effort was not desirable."

DPMC said it inherited the contract from police when the operational response moved to the DPMC on 2 April.

"DPMC decided that it did not need the ongoing services of Topham Guerim so agreed to a short-term (six-day) contract to see out the end of the work."