Platform: Legal gagging hinders creative PR thought - Trust is an essential part of the client/agency dynamic and non-disclosure agreements only undermine it, says Sue Beard

It’s not unusual for clients or prospects to insist their PR agencies - or potential agencies - sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before they are briefed on new projects or programmes. The agency generally signs up without a murmur, although sometimes with mixed feelings.

It’s not unusual for clients or prospects to insist their PR

agencies - or potential agencies - sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

before they are briefed on new projects or programmes. The agency

generally signs up without a murmur, although sometimes with mixed

feelings.



The message to the agency is negative. Individuals who are entirely

professional in their approach to client confidentiality can feel

threatened and inhibited.



Does the client not trust them? Are they going to get blamed if the

story gets out through some other source? Are they going to get sued?

The result is an environment which inhibits creative thought and

disempowers account teams.



From the client’s point of view, we understand the internal or external

influences and demands which might suggest a legal restriction is

necessary - particularly in certain industry sectors, like healthcare or

the financial sector.



But does the NDA really ensure a watertight ship? I don’t believe it

does. Some of the NDAs I have seen are so couched in legal jargon that

the limits are unclear; some are clearly issued as standard practice and

are not as restrictive as they might sound.



Legal interests do not fit well where clarity of communication is

paramount.



They tend to be over-restrictive, besting no communication over good

communication.



To consultancies which are new to the client, introducing an NDA into

the picture may bode badly regarding the client’s flexibility and its

ability to respond speedily and effectively. No agency wants to feel its

hands are tied and that it won’t be trusted to take responsibility for

its actions.



In a straw poll of clients, senior managers were found to be not

particularly keen on NDAs because of the detrimental effect on

client/agency relationships, but were often following a policy put

together by corporate lawyers in the US. This demonstrates just how far

corporate lawyers are from understanding some of the most basic

principles of good public relations practice - trust and partnership

between client and agency, or equally, senior management and in-house PR

department.



What seems to happen is that at some remote corporate level, a decision

has been taken to ’put the frighteners on’ when dealing with external

consultants on particular issues or products.



I personally can’t see the benefit in this. It establishes mistrust at

the outset, instils fear in more junior individuals and creates an

implicit threat. It doesn’t provide a motivating and productive

environment in which to do a good job.



Most consultancies, if they are any good, include a confidentiality

clause in their contracts - it’s dealt with in the PRCA’s guidelines. We

also understand, in triplicate, the need for caution when dealing with

sensitive information. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in business.



Some clients even require the media to sign NDAs. This offends

journalists, who want to know they’re not wasting their time, and

encourages them to do their best to unearth the story elsewhere. The

result? A miffed journalist and a story which is quite probably

unsubstantiated and possibly incorrect.



Counterproductive, again, in more ways than one.



One of the founding principles of good public relations must be the

professional and responsible handling of confidential information. It’s

a given. And it’s pretty clear that it’s not in our interests to divulge

any information on behalf of a client without their express

approval.



So please, let’s forget the NDA and work together in an environment of

trust and respect to get the job done.



Sue Beard is joint managing director at Marbles.



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