Vaccine comms 'cronyism' row: where's the real ethical line for PR?

Most people say government communication about the pandemic needs improving. Some of those people also say it is an ethical scandal spending taxpayers' money to bring in extra help and expertise to improve that communication. This attitude seems a little contradictory.

Vaccine comms 'cronyism' row: where's the real ethical line for PR?

If the Government's communication has been wanting, then surely, at least in part, it must be down to an absence of resources or skill in the Civil Service comms team. In which case it would seem wise, even ethical, to bring in private sector help.

Whitehall is currently awash with highly paid management consultants. Indeed, government has always used outside contractors to plug skill and resource gaps. So why has this case involving Admiral Associates caused such a storm?

Is it the amount being paid to Admiral that is raising ethical questions? The top-line figure of £670,000, equating to £167,000 a year for each of the eight full-time Admiral employees, sounds a lot, but it is a lot less than the Government is paying many management consultants.

Indeed, the Admiral hourly rate would look to be only a bit over £90 an hour for consultants who, according to Admiral, all have more than 10 years' comms experience. Is this a lot to pay if they achieve acceptance of the Government's crucial vaccine plans?

More than the money, where critics of the contract seem to agree is how the contract was awarded – seemingly without a tender or consultation with the Civil Service and to a firm that few had heard of. The counter-argument is that the public procurement process is generally slow and cumbersome, and there was no time to spare.

Certainly, a lot of other government work, for far more money, has been awarded during this nightmare pandemic without all the usual procurement processes being fully adhered to – but does that make this particular situation all right?

Certainly whoever leaked the information about the contract to the media was breaching their contract – a practice usually seen as unethical.

But what gives this story its sizzle is the fact that the person doing the appointing – Kate Bingham, head of the Vaccine Taskforce – is unelected, the wife of a Conservative minister and a venture capitalist. This is food not just to the Labour Party, but Tory critics of the Johnson Government (who perhaps feel left out of it) and disgruntled civil servants who dislike the implication that they might need outside help.

It has to be said that what people believe and proclaim to be unethical is often conveniently also in their own interest. Would they have been up in arms if it were their own side or interest that had awarded a similar contract?

Overall, a lack of clarity about where and how taxpayers' money is being spent is bound to be seen as ethically dodgy – particularly if you don’t like the people spending that money. This concern is only like to be further reinforced by news that a co-director of Admiral knows Dominic Cummings' father-in-law.

As for Admiral? I suspect it will struggle to get more government business, at least in the short term. On the other hand… everyone has now heard of Admiral.

Trevor Morris is former professor of PR at Richmond University and co-author (with Simon Goldsworthy) of ‘Public Relations Ethics: The Real-World Guide’



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