Deborah Cohen: Freud PR and public health

Deborah CohenWhat have marketing public health messages and marketing for alcohol and fast food corporations, such as KFC and Diageo got in common? The answer in the UK is Freud PR— a “strategic marketing and communications consultancy for consumer brands, public sector bodies and global corporations.”

The £1million a year contract from the Department of Health has been handed to Freud PR, which is largely owned by Matthew Freud—the husband of Elisabeth Murdoch, who is daughter of media tycoon Rupert—after a formal and “pretty robust” tendering process.

In a bid to “improve the communication of public health messages to help people live healthy lives and to increase the efficiency of its campaigns,” the Department of Health has turned to the company to “manage creative PR around all the Department’s public health campaigns.” It will bring together different strands of public health work including obesity and smoking.

Those visiting the Freud PR’s website will now see the Department of Health logo neatly nestled in amongst the corporate insignia of KFC, Pepsico, Diageo, and Ladbrokes—purveyors of fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol, and gambling.

Diane Abbott, shadow public health minister, said: “It’s really creepy. Big business is now completely in the driving seat of the country’s public health policies.” The government anti-obesity Change4Life campaign is also headed up by Freud PR.

A report only this week suggested that companies were getting around the ban on marketing food high in fat, salt, and sugar to kids on TV by turning to online social networking sites.

The report, from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), warned that junk food companies were acting “like wolves in sheep’s clothing” while the government had become complacent.

It might well be that the company can apply lessons gleaned from pushing the agendas of products that cause concern in the public health and addictions world. The DH suggest that one key reason for outsourcing the marketing work is “audience-focused – delivering the right message to the right people at the right time.”

“Freud Communications delivered a really exciting pitch,” a DH spokesperson said. “They have some big ideas that we believe will not only promote good health but will really change people’s behaviour.” The company will forfeit a fee if they don’t meet their targets—but it is unclear precisely what those targets are and what the messaging will be. Previously, the likes of Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation–amongst others–refused to sign up to Andrew Lansley’s “responsibility deals”  with food and drink companies suggesting that there were too many vested interests.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Freud PR manages potential conflicts of interest when competing agendas are at stake. One specific challenge might be how they will cope with the messaging about the UK’s burgeoning rates of obesity, problematic drinking habits and gambling addiction when it conflicts with the interests of their more prosperous clients.

Deborah Cohen is the BMJ investigations editor.