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