PHE Drinkaware partnership illustrates the difficult balance between reach and reputational cost

Public Health England has found itself roundly criticised for its decision to partner Drinkaware, the education charity largely funded by the alcohol industry, for a new campaign encouraging people to have drink-free days.

Is the potential improvement in public health worth the negative coverage, asks Peter Gilheany
Is the potential improvement in public health worth the negative coverage, asks Peter Gilheany

As reputational crises go, this type is a hardy perennial – an organisation announces a partnership, collaboration or investment that seems to run counter to its values or those held by its customers, employees, shareholders or others.

The classic example is Innocent Drinks and the furore around first its tie-up with McDonald's and then its gradual takeover by Coca-Cola.

The knee-jerk reaction for those with a stake in a brand or organisation is betrayal – "like putting a fox in charge of the hen house".

These issues come about because of the delicate balance required between ambition for growth, reach or impact and the reputational cost of furthering that ambition.

In the case of PHE, it has been given a real 'hospital pass': tackle the UK’s massive public health issues on an austerity budget – the proverbial peashooter to down an elephant.

Other public bodies and most campaigning charities will be constantly wrestling with the same challenge and scouting for partners who can give them a leg-up without ruining their relationship with their closest supporters.

Any organisation considering an external partnership must address one fundamental question – is it worth it?

Peter Gilheany, PR director at Forster Communications

Any organisation considering an external partnership must address one fundamental question: is it worth it?

For PHE, is the prize of the potential improvement in public health outcomes from the campaign worth the negative coverage and internal discord generated by its announcement?

I have no idea what the answer to that question is, but the important thing is that the question was asked, debated and thoroughly addressed by the organisation before it embarked on the campaign – in which case, none of the criticism coming its way now should be a surprise.

Its consideration won’t have just been about this particular campaign, though. It will have taken the longer-term view because it is well practiced in the role of 'critical friend' that many public bodies and charities have to navigate.

Choosing to be a critical friend means you get to stand inside the tent and try to influence change – but, potentially, at the expense of reputation and ethics. In or out?

For a values-led organisation, it is a fundamental decision and one that is best made when the organisation first comes into being.

If you position yourself as a disruptor brand, the alternative challenging the mainstream, then be prepared to don the tin hat for the flack coming your way if decide to join the mainstream.

Peter Gilheany is PR director at Forster Communications


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