Charlie Gard publicity highlights ethical responsibilities of PR

An article published in The Times on Saturday 29 July has raised questions about the nature of public relations work and the ethical responsibility of practitioners.

The report calls into question the conduct of Alasdair Seton-Marsden and Alison Smith-Squire. Neither Seton-Marsden nor Smith-Squire are members of the CIPR and while the Institute has no knowledge of the agreements they may have reached with Chris Gard and Connie Yates, we wish make clear our position on professional practice for the benefit of practitioners and the general public.

  1. Public relations professionals must always make statements with the informed consent of their client. CIPR members may not make public statements outside the scope of what their client has asked them to provide.
  2. Public relations professionals may work for their client for an agreed fee, or they may work pro bono. A CIPR member may not offer their services for free to the client, and then seek to monetise stories, information, images or other material by selling them to third parties. We regard working on this basis as unprofessional because it is, or is open to, a serious conflict of interest
  3. Clients may seek advice on how to obtain publicity in support of something they feel very strongly about. Part of the advice a CIPR member needs to give their client is that publicity is not always necessarily positive, and that bringing something to public attention can have unexpected, and indeed alarming consequences.
  4. Readers of a newspaper story should know whether it has been produced by a person who is independent of the story they are writing about, or by someone representing their client. CIPR members should take care to avoid any potential confusion.

Advice to clients 

  1. If you want public relations advice, choose a practitioner who follows a professional code of conduct and is therefore accountable for their actions and advice e.g. CIPR or PRCA.
  2. Insist upon a written contract, including clear terms of payment. Where the work is to be undertaken free of charge to the client, insist on a written agreement that sets out how you expect them to represent you and what they may or may not do with your assets, data and intellectual property.
  3. If you feel that your public relations adviser has a conflict of interest or is in some way not discharging their responsibility to you, contact the CIPR or the organisation of which they are a member to ask for advice.
Sarah Hall Chart.PR,  FCIPR, CIPR President-Elect
Any person working on behalf of a client must represent their views accurately and with their informed consent. They must not allow a conflict of interest to arise, such as also being paid by the media to write articles about them. Conflicts of interest are not removed where work is undertaken free of charge.

You wouldn't hire a solicitor who hadn't passed their legal exams or take medical advice from someone who wasn't a doctor. Anyone unsure about how to procure support or with concerns about the service provided can call the CIPR for help.

A grieving family lies at the heart of this case and our thoughts are with Charlie's parents at this time.
Sarah Hall Chart.PR, FCIPR, CIPR President-Elect

The CIPR operates its Ethics Hotline for members seeking advice on the management of ethical conflicts. Find out more.

Notes to editors

Notes to editors

About the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR)Founded in 1948, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is the Royal Chartered professional body for public relations practitioners in the UK and overseas. The CIPR is the largest membership organisation for PR practitioners outside of North America. By size of turnover and number of individually registered members, we are the leading representative body for the PR profession and industry in Europe.

The CIPR advances professionalism in public relations by making its members accountable to their employers and the public through a code of conduct and searchable public register, setting standards through training, qualifications, awards and the production of best practice and skills guidance, facilitating Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and awarding Chartered Public Relations Practitioner status (Chart.PR).