CIPR terminates membership of 'sweatygate' agency boss Gillian Waddell

The agency boss responsible for the notorious 'sweatygate' scandal has had her membership terminated by the CIPR, four years after the ethics controversy.

Gillian Waddell (inset) runs Fuel PR – the agency behind Sweatygate
Gillian Waddell (inset) runs Fuel PR – the agency behind Sweatygate

Gillian Waddell, founder and managing director of Fuel PR, was not a member of the CIPR when her agency was caught pitching a ‘real life’ feature in which the subject was an employee of the PR firm representing the product it endorsed, a story that was broken by PRWeek in 2015.

The CIPR said her membership had originally lapsed in 2014. She renewed it in 2016 but failed to declare her role in the Sweatygate scandal in the years since.

The CIPR reviewed Waddell’s membership after PRCA chairman Richard Houghton questioned how CIPR president Emma Leech could call out a similar scandal earlier this year, while the Fuel PR boss remained a member.

"It was a unanimous decision that the grounds for termination of Fuel PR’s PRCA membership in 2015, as well as the failure to make subsequent disclosures to this effect to the CIPR, were sufficiently serious to warrant the termination of Ms Waddell’s membership," CIPR Professional Practices Committee chair Paul Mylrea said.

CIPR chief executive Alastair McCapra added: "I am grateful to former PRCA chairman Richard Houghton for initially bringing this matter to my attention. I have the power to bring complaints against CIPR members in certain circumstances, and in this case that was the most appropriate way of bringing the matter to a Professional Standards Panel. We have now closed the loophole which allowed Gillian Waddell to rejoin."

The 'sweatygate' scandal

Fuel PR pitched a story that ran in several newspapers featuring ‘Esme de Silva’, who was said to suffer from a condition that led her to produce excess sweat. The original release said the condition could be overcome by the use of an antiperspirant, which was the product of a Fuel PR client.

However, de Silva’s identity was fake, and it emerged that the subject was actually Fuel PR’s senior account executive Leandra Cardozo.

At the time, Waddell defended the practice of pitching a ‘real life’ article by using a fake identity without disclosing this fact.

She said: "We provided a press release about an embarrassing personal condition and in line with the case study's request, we kept her identity private as we would do in all cases with all case studies, requesting discretion and privacy when discussing a highly personal, complex and deeply private health issue."

The agency was found to have breached the PRCA’s professional charter and its membership to the PRCA was rescinded, while Waddell lost her PRCA fellowship.

Sweatygate isn’t the only case of a PR agency passing of a fake identity as real.

Earlier this year, PRWeek revealed that an agency called Bland PR had pitched a sugar-free challenge puff piece to MailOnline in which sales and marketing executive Alice 'Welch’ (whose real name is Alice Bland) wrote a diary piece about her sugar-free week, which promoted her client Boka’s sugar-free marshmallows.

In response, Leech urged the sector to learn lessons from the sugar-free scandal in a column in PRWeek that was subsequently challenged by Houghton and has led to Waddell’s fellowship being terminated.

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