SACRAMENTO — Prominent social media, broadcasting and other major interests have poured nearly $26 million into Covid-19 efforts at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request, a record amount that came as some of the companies lobbied the governor’s office on data privacy and other thorny regulatory matters, state disclosures show.
The amount of donated ad space to the state’s public health messaging effort has tripled since Newsom first touted it in late March, applauding the California-based companies who stepped up to “join the fight against COVID-19.”
Companies like Google, Facebook, iHeartMedia, Fox and Clear Channel have run ads in California and around the nation urging people to protect themselves and others by staying home. First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom stars in some of the California spots, while others feature public health officials, celebrity comedians like Will Farrell and Ken Jeong and a cartoon narrated by Newsom.
Google and iHeart Media each ran $7 million worth of ads as part of California’s awareness campaign, Newsom reported, as required by state transparency laws.
The governor also reported that the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in early April contributed $250,000 in services as it worked with his business development office to “address the economic impact of COVID-19 in California.” McKinsey has pursued various state consulting opportunities in the past, and Newsom last year awarded the company at least four consulting contracts worth more than $2 million, according to The Sacramento Bee.
Another state contractor, Sacramento communications firm Runyon Saltzman, contributed $150,000 in Covid-19 ad services.
Informing citizens about how to protect themselves and others during the pandemic has clear societal benefits, government and ethics experts say. But, they add, the public should view any such private-sector assistance with a critical eye.
“We’ve never seen such large amounts of money before — it’s way beyond what we’ve seen,” said Bob Stern, the principal co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act that underpins California campaign finance rules. “Even though it’s for good purposes, it could be coming from people who want something from you.”
Businesses or individuals lending a hand to government may enhance their ability to influence policymakers by generating goodwill, said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a good-government nonprofit based in Los Angeles.
“An advertising campaign to educate people about Covid-19 is beneficial to all,” Stein said. “The key question is: Is it also beneficial to Governor Newsom? The answer is probably yes. It’s also beneficial to the tech companies. They can say they are corporate philanthropists as opposed to campaign donors. And they earn the good graces of the most powerful person in California.”
And, unlike campaign contributions, the experts note, these so called “behested payments” — coordinated or requested by elected officials for certain charitable or governmental causes — have no limit. The $26 million is easily a record amount raised by a California governor in a year.
Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom, said the PSA campaign has saved lives and that “being able to effectively communicate life-saving messages in real time about how to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been essential to our state’s success.”
“This has been an ‘all hands on deck’ crisis, calling on people in organizations of all shapes and sizes to pitch in,” Click said.
More than two dozen companies have helped Newsom and public health officials exhort Californians to stay home during the crisis, including Fox ($2 million), TikTok ($300,000), Snapchat ($130,000), Twitter ($10,000) and Pandora ($77,000), the state disclosures show.
Other Covid-19 contributions address homelessness and e-learning, such as $500,000 from video conferencing company Zoom. The platform has become ubiquitous in the current telework and remote learning era, but the company also has faced increasing scrutiny from state and federal leaders over privacy concerns.
Some of the same businesses have embraced similar collaborations at the national and international levels. A March news release from iHeartMedia announced the Ad Council trade group and major media networks were launching a PSA campaign in coordination with the White House, CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The business community’s generosity, compassion, and commitment to do good is both inspiring and essential in this critical time of need,” said Lisa Sherman, the Ad Council’s president and CEO, in the release.
A Facebook spokesperson noted that the ad credits the company gave to California’s Covid-19 public awareness campaign were part of broader efforts to assist health authorities and governments around the world. And Google CEO Sundar Pichai in late March announced a series of Covid-19 response commitments that included $250 million in ad grants to help the World Health Organization and 100 other government agencies “provide critical information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other measures to help local communities.”
In California, the PSA support comes as social media companies, advertisers and other business interests engage in a prolonged battle with consumer privacy advocates over how the state should regulate the flow of consumers’ personal information. The landmark California Consumer Privacy Act, the strongest data privacy law in the nation, took effect in January. It is slated to be enforced by Attorney General Xavier Becerra beginning July 1, though the final regulations are still pending and business groups have been seeking a delay, citing the pandemic.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan contributed another $195,000 this month to a polling project “to support the state’s response to Covid-19.”
Google, before investing in California’s public health awareness campaign, spent roughly $73,000 in the first three months of the year on lobbying expenses in California, focusing on bills related to privacy and biometric surveillance as well as CCPA regulations, according to lobbying disclosures.
Google’s Verily Life Sciences has secured contracts with the state to provide Covid-19 screening and testing services in California.
Clear Channel, which ran billboards and other ads with nearly $1.2 million worth of PSA messaging, lobbied the state on outdoor advertising issues at the beginning of the year. There are no proposals pending in the state legislature on outdoor advertising, said company spokesperson Jason King, who added that “giving back is part of our DNA.”
“Our business and our media are part of the local communities where we operate, and since our inception, we’ve continuously used our network to elevate messages around public safety, including times of national emergencies, disasters and crises,” King said in a statement.
When a company gives money or services to the state, it doesn’t necessarily imply a quid pro quo, said Stern.
But, he said, if someone has contributed a bundle of money to your cause “and that person has something pending before you, there is a feeling of gratitude.”