National Bullying Helpline's media strategy attacked as founder turns to Clifford

The National Bullying Helpline's founder Christine Pratt this week turned to Max Clifford as senior PR professionals attacked her media strategy.

Christine Pratt hires Max Clifford
Christine Pratt hires Max Clifford

Pratt waded into the national media last Sunday with revelations that several Downing Street staff had phoned her charity's helpline.

PRWeek revealed Pratt was in talks with Clifford (prweek.com, 23 February) after four high-profile charity patrons - including MP Ann Widdecombe - resigned, and the media printed allegations that she herself had screamed at and intimidated former colleagues. Clifford told PRWeek: 'She wants help handling the media attention.'

The development came as senior PROs slammed Pratt's decision to speak out as ill-advised, naive, egotistical and fatal for her helpline's brand.

'She either went on TV out of naivety or ego, it was really ill-advised and disastrous for her brand,' said PRCA's director-general Francis Ingham. 'Her brand was an anonymous one before, but now it is just a bad one. She undermined the whole basis of her business by breaching confidentiality.'

Bright Young Things Communications MD Niall Cowley, a former Beatbullying comms chief, agreed: 'The damage to the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) will be significant if not fatal. The most important factor in any person's decision to seek help is confidentiality. The NBH has openly proved it will use its own discretion as to whether it will give you that.'

Paul Fawcett, Victim Support's head of marketing and communication, said his charity would never disclose such information without consent: 'We frequently miss opportunities to promote ourselves because of the extent to which we respect confidentiality. We get requests from journalists most weeks to be put in contact with specific victims and their families, but we do not even confirm or deny whether or not we have helped someone without their explicit consent'.

Meanwhile, Emma Insley, chair of the Youth Helplines Network, said the story could have a broader impact, by negatively affecting the reputation of other helplines.

She added: 'We would pursue disciplinary action against any member of our network that discloses such information in the public domain.'

The Charity Commission, the third sector's regulator, is contacting the charity for further information. The National Bullying Helpline could not be reached for comment.

Timeline

- Tuesday: Labour minister Phil Woolas brands National Bullying Helpline founder Christine Pratt 'a prat of a woman'; Pratt asks Max Clifford to step in.

- Monday: Four patrons of the helpline resign; Lord Mandelson accuses Tory press officers of colluding with Pratt in a smear campaign; David Cameron calls for inquiry into allegations and Tories accuse Downing Street of trying to smear Pratt.

- Sunday: The Observer prints bullying claims from Andrew Rawnsley's new book; Mandelson dismisses the allegations of bullying by PM; Pratt tells the media that 'three or four' Downing Street staff contacted her helpline.

2007: The year National Bullying Helpline was awarded charity status
2002: The year National Bullying Helpline was established
4: The number of charity patrons who have resigned this week
3 or 4: The number of calls made to the helpline from 10 Downing Street*
*Source: Christine Pratt

WHAT THEY SAID THE KEY PLAYERS AND THEIR MESSAGES

- Christine Pratt, Founder, National Bullying Helpline

Pratt told the BBC that, over the past three or four years, the helpline had 'probably received three or four calls'.

She added: 'Over recent months, we have had several enquiries from staff within Gordon Brown's office. Some have downloaded information; some have called our helpline directly and I have spoken to staff in his office ... We are not suggesting that Gordon Brown is a bully, what we are saying is staff in his office working directly with him have issues, and have concerns and have contacted our helpline.'

- David Cameron, Leader, Conservative Party

The Tory leader said the bullying story was an 'unseemly mess' and that he was sure 'that Number 10 Downing Street and the Civil Service in some way will want to have some sort of inquiry to get to the bottom of what has happened here'. Speaking at an event to launch the Network for the Post Bureaucratic Age in central London, he added: 'One way for that to happen is for Sir Philip Mawer, who is in charge of policing the ministerial code, to be asked to look into this and to find out what has been happening.'

- Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills

Mandelson told reporters that 'this whole affair is starting to acquire a slight odour'. 'I assumed that this was a storm in a teacup manufactured by somebody who wanted to get some good headlines for his book. It now looks like more of a political operation that's under way, directed at the Prime Minister personally.'

At a UK Trade and Investment Conference, he said there was no evidence to back up the allegations and that people who had made them needed to 'put up or shut up'.

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