Charlie Gard case shows working for free doesn’t mitigate conflict of interest issues in PR

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

Public relations practitioners and professional bodies have lined up to criticise questionable practice in the Charlie Gard case.

The CIPR, an industry body representing 10,000 practitioners in the UK, has issued guidance to the public on hiring public relations services, in response to an investigative report into the Charlie Gard case published in the Times.

In said report, investigative journalist Alexi Mostrous called into question the so-called public relations advice received by Charlie’s parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard. It threw into clear focus the ethical responsibility of practitioners.

Journalist turned publicist Alison Smith-Squire represented the baby’s parents for free, allegedly charging newspapers for stories and images about the case.

Smith-Squire operates a news agency under the trading name of Featureworld. Her agreement with Connie Yates and Chris Gard is unknown.

I failed to find anyone to defend Smith-Squire’s business model.

“The strangest issue here is the individual creating content and selling copy and photos to the market, while also advising the family,” said Paddy Blewer, head of communications at Peninsula Petroleum.

“There’s a fundamental problem with Smith-Squire working both as publicist to the parents of Charlie Gard and a journalist covering the case. It’s a clear conflict of interest,” said Chris Owen, director at M&C Saatchi.

“I've never heard of an individual demanding payment from the media for lifting photos off Facebook. If your photos are up there, you should expect and accept anybody to lift them off whatever your security settings. It might be ethically and morally unacceptable to do so but that's the world we are in,” said Mary Whenman, corporate communications at Inmarsat.

The CIPR is clear on the issue. It says that conflicts of interest are not removed where work is undertaken free of charge.

“Public relations professionals may work for their client for an agreed fee, or they may work pro bono. A CIPR member may not offer their services for free to the client, and then seek to monetise stories, information, images or other material by selling them to third parties,” said Sarah Hall, president-elect at CIPR.

“You wouldn't hire a solicitor who hadn't passed their legal exams or take medical advice from someone who wasn't a doctor,” she continued.

“Public relations practitioners should be bound by a code of conduct and professional ethics that guarantees that they work to the best of their abilities to protect their clients' interests,” said Ella Minty, an independent public relations practitioner.

The CIPR has issued advice to individuals and organisations seeking to hire public relations services.

1. If you want public relations advice, choose a practitioner who follows a professional code of conduct and is therefore accountable for their actions and advice, such as the CIPR or the PRCA.

2. Insist upon a written contract, including clear terms of payment. Where the work is to be undertaken free of charge to the client, insist on a written agreement that sets out how you expect them to represent you and what they may or may not do with your assets, data and intellectual property.

3. If you feel that your public relations adviser has a conflict of interest or is in some way not discharging their responsibility to you, contact the CIPR or the organisation of which they are a member to ask for advice.

At the heart of this story is a grieving family that have lost their son, Charlie. He died on Friday 28 July after suffering from a rare genetic condition. My thoughts and prayers are with his parents.

I’m a member and former president of the CIPR. Sarah Hall is my partner.

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