Back-to-school influencer ad spend finally revealed after 2.5-year battle

The Cabinet Office tried to take court action before releasing eight word response after 890 days

The Cabinet Office tried to take court action before releasing eight word response after 890 days


Ministers have finally revealed how much two influencers were paid to promote its £3.6 million back-to-school campaign after lockdown – releasing an eight-word response after a two-and-a-half year battle for transparency. 

The fight is likely to have cost the Cabinet Office thousands of pounds more on top of the £13,000 it has now admitted it paid the pair during August 2020.

The government department – previously slammed by MPs over “substandard” Freedom of Information handling – was in the process of taking court action over our request for information, but dropped the case at the last minute. 

TV presenter Kirsty Gallacher used her Twitter and Instagram accounts to “reassure parents on the changes and safety measures in place at schools” during the pandemic.

She was pictured with Dr Philippa Kaye, a celebrity GP, visiting Charles Dickens Primary in south London to “hear about the new measures put in place to make schools as safe as possible on our kids’ return”.

In November 2020, Schools Week submitted a FoI request on costs, including how much the two were paid. 

But the Cabinet Office claimed disclosure would “prejudice the commercial interests” of the department, celebrities and MullenLowe Group, the advertising company involved. 

After Schools Week complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the department did reveal the overall campaign cost £3.6 million.

890 day wait for information

The ICO last year ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose influencer pay, saying: “Any celebrity seeking to tender for such a role in a future campaign is likely to submit the most competitive tender/fee, as it is in their interests to do so.

“Additionally, although some contracts may be similar in nature, they will not be the same, and different factors will be taken into account when pricing and awarding future contracts of this nature.” 

In October last year, ministers said they would challenge the ICO’s decision in the first-tier tribunal court. 

But four months later, after various legal documents had been prepared and submitted by both parties, the department suddenly withdrew its appeal after “reassessing its position”.

Finally – 890 days later – the Cabinet Office revealed it paid Gallacher £10,000 and Kaye £3,000. The FOI response contained eight words (see image).

influencer pay

Transparency laws state public bodies should respond to requests within 20 working days.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the case was “wholly unreasonable. There’s no reason why finding out about government spending should be so difficult. 

“Government departments would do themselves a lot of good by being more open in the first place. Handing the information over at a very late stage … is usually a sign that it’s finally dawned … that it’s likely to lose its appeal.”

Influencer case could cost thousands

The Cabinet Office press team refused to say how much it spent challenging the case, claiming details of any legal costs would be in its annual accounts. 

But Geraldine Swanton, a legal director at Shakespeare Martineau law firm, said legal fees could be “substantial and depending on the complexity of the matter, can cost thousands of pounds”.

The department had previously spent at least £300,000 blocking similar information requests in court, The Times reported last year. 

MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs committee last year found there had been a “slide away from transparency” on some FOIs. 

William Wragg, the committee’s chair, said the department had “substandard FOI handling” and must improve compliance and “regain public confidence”. 

An ICO spokesperson said withdrawing tribunal appeals can “waste” public resources. It would keep the issue under review, they added.

Cabinet Office analysis showed that Gallacher’s social media posts had 1,912 likes and 27 comments. She later deleted one of the tweets that did not disclose it was an advert.

The department said her posts and others by the influencer duo This Is Mothership had a reach of more than 800,000.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said: “Schools take extremely seriously their duty to use public money in a transparent and responsible manner. There is therefore an expectation that the government will do the same.”

A government spokesperson said it “used every means possible to keep the public informed during the pandemic. This included our use of social media influencers, who helped us reach a wider audience than using only traditional advertising.”

Kaye declined to comment. Gallacher did not respond. 

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  1. This is shocking – I don’t know what’s worse, paying “influencers” all of that money, or not releasing the info for almost 3 years?

    Or worse that I have no idea who these “influencers” are? One was paid £10,000 and received less than 2,000 likes. So paid £5 per like, with no possible way to show ROI (return on investment).

    And this is a governmental organisation? How much money has been wasted on other PR projects like this?