The Australian Defence Force has sidestepped conflict of interest concerns over a social media review awarded to George Patterson Y&R, the advertising behemoth that also handles the ADF’s coveted $40 million recruitment account.

The “external” Facebook and Twitter probe, part of a suite of inquiries into the ADF following the notorious Australian Defence Force Academy Skype scandal, was announced by Defence Minister Stephen Smith last Friday and will deliver its findings by the end of July.

But social media experts say that not only is an ad giant like George Patterson an inappropriate choice for a risk review, but that the firm is unlikely to provide frank and fearless advice given the ADF shunts it a significant proportion of its profits.

Last year the global agency, led locally by Gruen Transfer favourite Russel Howcroft, retained its lucrative 10-year, $40 million advertising foothold inside the ADF, despite savage competition from seven other agencies. And last November it extended its influence again, snagging the digital advertising account previously held by bitter rivals Visual Jazz.

Advertising insiders say the firm has become a one-stop shop for the ADF’s promotional needs and is now effectively an arm of the federal government.

The review will be overseen by George Patterson’s “national digital director“ Rob Hudson and is expected to recommend the joint-armed forces crack down on Facebook hate pages that surfaced in the wake of the Skype debacle, including one devoted to vilifying homos-xuals.

In an emailed statement provided to Crikey this morning, a Defence Department spokesperson boldly stated there was “no conflict of interest” over the appointment.

“There are clear advantages to having a company already familiar with Defence’s social media presence, policies and activities engaged in the review, including an ability to quickly build an understanding of the current state of Defence’s social media activities, its policies and practices in this environment,” the spokesperson wrote.

“The personnel selected to form the team for this review provide a suitable balance of strategic, technical and psychological/human behaviour perspectives that Defence considers necessary for this activity.”

In Friday’s media release announcing the review, Smith described George Patterson as an “external consulting company”. He hoped the review would “ensure that the use of new technologies is consistent with Australian Defence Force and Defence values”.

But Australia’s leading social media consultant and keen Twitter user Laurel Papworth questioned whether the conglomerate was the best fit for the job, noting the “agency-created social media” chafed with the “socially-created media” at the heart of the ADF’s troubles.

“It is surprising that the ADF are using a traditional agency to review the shift,” she said, with the situation akin to “asking the fox to review and report on the hen house”.

“Agencies are the most at risk in the new social economy, and given the depth of experience in Australia of non-agency social media expertise, I wonder just how much consideration was given by the ADF to who would head up this review before giving it to George Patts,” she added.

Industry insiders say social media risk reviews are usually carried out not by advertising creatives but by law or accounting firms such as Deloitte or a growing band of specialised risk management consultants.

George Patterson media minder Lynda Gray declined to respond specifically to the conflict of interest claims, stating only it “has offered social media consulting services to various corporate and government organisations since 2009 and it is part of our scope of work with the ADF”.

“Given the review has started we prefer not to make any further comment,” she said.

Last week, a former soldier was charged in response to the Facebook posts, which targeted four serving members of the ADF and stated that homos-xual offices should be dismembered and fed to marine life in Botany Bay.

In the Skype incident, a sexual liaison between recruits at the Australian Defence Force Academy was broadcast to an adjoining dormitory for others’ gratification.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey