Barley blog: When not to protect your client’s reputation

Close Up Of Children's Feet In Soccer MatchThe last two weeks have seen hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse in football come forward, in some cases waiving their right to anonymity to raise awareness of the issue.  At the time of writing, 17 police forces are investigating allegations of historical and current abuse within football and the NSPCC has revealed that referrals from calls to their football abuse hotline more than tripled the amount made in the first three days of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

In a recent piece on Radio 4, a comment from Jim Gamble, the former Chief Executive of anti-paedophile agency CEOP struck a chord with me.  He cautioned against football clubs “putting reputation before children”.  With further accusations of cover ups arising throughout the week, it’s left me wondering whether PR agencies are part of the problem.

There is big money to be made in crisis communications – defending clients against media storms when the proverbial hits the fan.  PRs will often find themselves privy to confidential information which could destroy their clients’ reputations were it in the public domain.  Often, there are tough decisions to be made as to which clients an agency is willing to represent.

It is for each agency to decide which clients they are comfortable taking on.  My own lines in the sand have, in the past, been drawn at the fur and arms trades and I know others who have chosen not to work with the meat industry or tourism accounts for countries where it is illegal to be gay.  I would hope that most agencies have the flexibility to allow their people to opt out of working on clients which clash with their individual moral and ethical values.

However, this goes beyond ethics.  My concern is whether our industry is playing a part in protecting the reputations of institutions, at the expense of putting an end to the horrific abuse that has persisted for decades.  The impact of such abuse cannot be over-estimated.  Through our work with the Clinic for Dissociative Studies we see the lifelong devastation that comes from the sexual abuse of children.  Every day that an abuse is not reported, the abuser remains at liberty to shatter more lives.

As the chairman of the FA Greg Clarke said this week “Institutionally, all organisations in the old days used to protect themselves by keeping quiet and closing ranks. That’s completely inappropriate and unacceptable today.”

I urge my fellow agency heads to review their relationships with any institutions that might be embroiled in current and future abuse allegations and consider whether it is right to continue to protect their reputations.  They should also make it clear to their staff that their duty of care is more important than client fees.  Any individual with concerns over their clients’ behaviour should keep notes which include times, dates and records of conversations and report anything you believe to be illegal at the earliest opportunity.

The NSPCC’s football abuse helpline can be called 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.

Sam Williams, Partner, Barley Communications