Whitehall awards public health campaign contract to Freud Communications, whose clients include Pepsi and KFC
The Chipping Norton set might not be getting together for the festive season this year, but Christmas came early for one of its main movers yesterday, courtesy of a £1m a year contract with Whitehall.
The Department of Health announced that from January, its entire public relations work on public health would be handled by Matthew Freud's communication agency, which lists several fast and snack food producers among its clients.
Distinct strands of public health work – such as obesity and smoking – were handled as separate accounts managed by different agencies, but now all the work will be rolled up into a single account for MEC managing all the media planning and Freud Communications, the firm founded and largely owned by Rupert Murdoch's son in law. Freud is married to Elisabeth Murdoch.,
The contract was awarded after a formal tendering process. The DoH said the single campaign would increase efficiency, by streamlining all communications: "Too often the department has held separate conversations with the same people, one day talking to them about their diet, the next about their alcohol consumption without recognising the linked behaviours."
Sheila Mitchell, the Department's Head of Marketing, added that: "Freud Communications delivered a really exciting pitch. They have some big ideas that we believe will not only promote good health but will really change people's behaviour".
But public health experts expressed scepticism about the government's real commitment to public health. In the wake of the announcement, Professor Helen Ward of Imperial College said last night: "There may be some merit in approaching health promotion in a generic way, but this comes as part of an overall government strategy which has focussed on deals with big business at the exclusion of the multilayered approach which is required. That would go beyond campaigns to nudge people into changing behaviour, and include regulation – something business always resists".
Other Freud clients include Pepsi, KFC, Walkers Crisps and the premium drinks company, Diageo. Public health lobby groups, including Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation, previously refused to sign up to health secretary Andrew Lansley's "responsibility deals" with food and alcohol producers, amid fears about vested interests.
Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of the salt-reduction campaign CASH, said: "Andrew Lansley inherited a plan on salt which was leading the world, but this has now given way to confusion. The reliance on PR people with deep links to the food industry deepens the anxieties about public health in the UK."
Freud handled the anti-obesity Change4Life campaign, which brought in fees of £45,000 a month; it is thought the combined campaign will earn about £85,000 a month, or £1m a year. Mitchell said that a percentage of this will be forfeited if the new campaign does not achieve its targets.
Industry insiders said this was the biggest Whitehall PR contract awarded since the election.
Diane Abbott, shadow public health minister, said: "It is really creepy. Big business is now completely in the driving seat of the country's public health policies. Big fast food firms and drinks companies are writing the policy, and corporate lobbyists are delivering the message"
Freud PR said that the firm had no immediate conflicts of interest because the health department contract took in work about smoking and the early diagnosis of cancer in old people.
It is understood that the company does not represent any tobacco or pharmaceutical clients.
Insiders said that the pitch process was "pretty robust" and that given the family links to News Corp, that had to be the case.