By PR Council Ethics Co-Chairs: Anne Green, CEO and President, CooperKatz & Company
and Peter Verrengia, President and Senior Partner of Communications Consulting Worldwide (CCW), unit of Fleishman Hillard

As PR practitioners in today’s world, we are all bound to experience the ethical dilemma of representing clients who are in opposition to each other. There are many variations to these potential situations, and it is our job to recognize and to learn how to handle them. Examples can range from clients being on opposite sides of a lawsuit; to straightforward marketplace competition scenarios; to supplier relationships gone bad. It is essential for the credibility of our agencies and our industry that we approach these circumstances ethically and transparently. But that begs the question, how exactly is this done today?

Before a Conflict Arises

The most common scenario is for a firm to have a potential new business from a client with interests that may conflict with a current client. Having a strong new business tracking system in place, along with a client acceptance process is important, in order to identify these situations and avoid surprises after a new, conflicting relationship has begun. The scale of the system and processes can vary according to the scale of the agency and its relationships. In a large or growing organization, a coordinated approach that spans local, regional and global relationships across the agency is key. At any size, the best approach is to create a flow of timely information about new business leads going to and from a team that represents all of the agency’s operations. This group of peers can provide awareness and assessment of current client-service activity, and identify potential conflicts. Having an established team for this purpose allows account teams and new business teams to have quick warning of any potential issues, and access to advice on alternatives.

Dealing with questions of client conflict sooner rather than later will help to avoid problems down the line. Conflicts can often be predicted and prevented if review processes are put in place. It is important to utilize the knowledge that the agency already has to anticipate relationships and issues that could cause problems between clients, and to propose solutions. For that reason, practice and industry sector leaders in the agency should play an important part in assessing incoming opportunities. In most firms, they are already responsible for assembling appropriate teams that properly match clients’ needs, and they have the technical knowledge to make distinctions between clients or projects that might be less in conflict than they initially appear.

It is most effective if everyone in the organization who has a role in the prevention and resolution of client conflicts uses the same pre-defined list of client-acceptance questions as part of an agreed process. This helps avoid changing the criteria to fit the circumstances, which can be a bad practice that increases the risk of unethical decisions.

In smaller firms, these decisions may always be made by the owners or senior management team. Even in larger organizations with a dedicated new business function and an ethics committee, there will be some situations that require the involvement of top management. This will depend on the difficulty of the situation and is more likely to happen when the issue involves work for two current clients, or one existing client and a larger or more attractive new opportunity.

 

Questions to Ask

To resolve potential client conflicts, start with a series of questions. Even if the questions are hard to define, the answers must end up being clear. Ideally, agencies should have an internal commitment to try to raise and resolve these questions within 48 hours, or faster if necessary.

 

  • The primary question is a fundamental test for the organization and its leaders: Can we do our best work for both clients without putting either at a disadvantage? That’s the essence of professional commitment. The resolution can be as simple as having two really good teams, equally matched and with the right chemistry for the clients involved. The teams must be adequately separated so their information flow and decisions can be truly, verifiably separated, with each team focused on the interests of one client. The firm cannot be perceived to be twisting and turning, or hiding the problem, in its own self-interest.
  • Next we should ask: How will our employees feel? If you visualize the actual work (that is, the actual pitches or campaigns that employees could end up doing on opposite sides), how will those staff members perceive our choice to take on both clients at once? Will they question our ethics or values as a firm, based on what we are asking them to do? Will it make them feel unsettled or unsure?
  • How will the clients react? If the agency can make the case for equal service and reliable separation and confidentiality, you must still ask the client if they can accept their service provider taking both roles. Some organizations and institutions you serve may consider these situations a loyalty test. Some are generally less concerned. Even if you have a good idea of how the existing and potential client will react, going ahead and working for both firms without asking for confirmation is a safe or ethical choice.  If both clients suddenly knew exactly what the agency was doing, would they be surprised or alarmed? Maintaining transparency as early as possible will help to avoid these issues when they do become visible.

 

It’s important to note that the different points of view addressed by these questions are equally valid. The client-side concerns may seem more obvious. At the same time, you may feel frustrated that a client or prospect with unreasonable expectations of exclusivity will hinder your business. Open discussion will likely help. But, perceptions among your employees could be more difficult to decipher. Many employees are used to working across teams without restrictions and they value variety in their client relationships. In a conflict situation, openness and experiences with new clients would potentially need to be restricted. Employees may not be as open to expressing their thoughts on the situation, which could lead to a buildup of feelings over time, and cause stress in their relationship with the agency.

These questions are often sufficient to evaluate client conflict scenarios, since they require transparency and an honest self-assessment. It is also important to resolve potential client conflicts quickly. Letting conflict questions linger and brew is a bad approach to maintaining a relationship. It can also be unfair to both parties, preventing them from finding other providers.

Responsibilities of Management

Each situation will differ to some degree. Many professional services firms will take the approach that existing clients come first. Sometimes they might not even have to ask the existing clients to know that a new opportunity will go against their interests. The firm will instead choose to stay away from that specific new business opportunity.

For some firms that have the capacity, it might make sense to address a potential conflict by starting out with separate teams geographically. But even if that, or another solution makes sense in the beginning of the new client relationship, there may be good reason to establish a check-in process and ongoing monitoring at an agency management level above the client-service teams. At a minimum, the management team has the responsibility to maintain any lines of separation that have been custom created to address a conflict.

Solutions to individual situations aside, the principles should be consistent whenever an agency approaches conflict issues. As leaders, we want to grow our businesses. At the same time, to maintain the relationships that create that growth, we have to assure ourselves and our clients that we have the capacity to do the best possible work for both parties in a conflict situation. We should demonstrate this through consultation and ultimately, agreement. To live up to our obligations, we have to maintain a dialogue about conflicts and client acceptance across our organizations, using clear and consistent standards. And we should trust, but verify that our teams are adhering to agreed separation or other terms that can make potential conflicts acceptable to all parties.

When new opportunities present conflicts for an agency, it can be a threat. But it is also an opportunity to build stronger relationships, and a stronger reputation, through open discussion, mutual respect, and a shared concept of commitment and fairness.

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