PR: can we have our cake and eat it?

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‘Conflict of interest’ is a term that rears its head on a regular basis for PR agencies, as we endeavour to balance the interests of our clients.

That’s been thrust under the microscope this week, after it was revealed that the PR firm behind the Government’s multi-million pound anti-obesity drive, Freud Communications, also represents the likes of Mars, KFC and Pepsico.

The disclosure has led to renewed claims that ministers are failing to address the obesity crisis, because ‘they’re too cosy with the industry’. To add fuel to the fire, the PR firm is apparently using the Government’s official website as a ‘branding opportunity to market junk food’, with a number of highly favourable ‘news’ stories about Pepsi, Mars and ASDA.

While the contract is being branded by health and obesity experts as an ‘absolute scandal’, raising ‘suspicions’ about the Change4Life scheme as a whole, the revelation does pose an interesting question for the PR industry about how to manage conflicts of interest.

In this case, you’d imagine that Freud has drawn a defined line between client teams, to ensure it can service both sides without mixing up its rice cakes and double chocolate fudge. With a list of clients quite clear to see on its website, the agency has obviously used its scale to segment itself in such a way that neither the management team, nor the respective clients, feel a conflict will ever occur.

For smaller agencies, some might argue that a distinction between the two is much harder to achieve. Does that make us more loyal to our clients’ needs, or, if given the chance, would we all have our cake and eat it?