No Good Deed Dilemma: Potential PR Party Pooper

The Dilemma du Jour:

I am the VP, Marketing for a big real estate developer and we’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with a similar-size PR firm. Recently, I left some papers at one of our display suites and dropped by after-hours to pick them up only to find one of the PR firm’s staff members entertaining a group of friends. They didn’t seem like rowdy types and there was no physical damage, but I was shocked to find him there using our space like his personal lounge. He’s apologized repeatedly and has asked me not to report him to his VP and in a subsequent conversation even offered a fee reduction. I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, there doesn’t seem to be any real harm in what he did…but on the other hand, has he done it before, will he do it again and what is my obligation to my employer, his employer and to our long-standing business relationship?

Signed, Potential PR Party Pooper

Dear Potential PR Party Pooper,

This is a tough place to find yourself – but the problem is absolutely of the PR firm’s staff member’s own making. You are an executive and a partner in, what has been, up to now, a trusted business relationship. That relationship has been inexcusably violated.

That the PR staffer could, even for a moment, believe this was acceptable behaviour illustrates a shocking lack of judgement. The fact that there was no damage to the space, and that the crowd of ‘guests’ seemed well heeled, is beside the point. What’s key here is that the PR staffer – who had access to the space, and clearly didn’t expect you to show up when he was using it – had not asked for and been given your permission to be there ‘after hours.’ To your point, was this a pattern of unauthorized use of your properties that had been going on for some time? And if you asked, could you trust the PR staffer to tell you the truth about possible past transgressions?

For the relationship between any consultant and any client to be truly successful, it must be based in two deep-seated beliefs: first, that the consultant understands your needs, and has the expertise to support your organizational goals and objectives, but second (and more importantly), you must also believe that you are working with individuals who are both honest and ethical. Indeed, the real harm done through the PR staffer’s actions is that of shaking your faith in the very foundation of your relationship – with him, and, by extension, the firm. With that in mind, you are well within your rights to take steps to ensure this never happens again.

Naturally, he asked you not to report his misconduct. The fact that he has even offered you a discount on costs is also of serious concern. Is he attempting to ‘bribe’ you into silence? Clearly, this is unethical in terms of his relationship with his own employer, if legitimate hours worked are ‘lost’ (or written off) in an attempt to buy his way back into your good books. With all of this in mind, I believe you have two possible courses of action. You need to decide which road to take, depending on how deeply you believe the consultant who took advantage of your trust should feel the blow.

You are completely justified in having a confidential conversation with the general manager of the PR agency, taking one of two routes. In the first, you simply but firmly say that you would prefer not to have that particular consultant work on your business from this point forward. There may be repercussions for the consultant, but that’s the GM’s issue to resolve. In the second option, your conversation with the GM could be more direct and detailed. Explain your discovery of the unauthorized use of your property and ask the PR firm to provide a resolution. The outcome of either option will mean the removal of the consultant from your account, but in the second case, he is more likely to be looking for a new job, as opposed to being assigned new clients.

~ Jackie Asante, Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard HighRoad (Vancouver)

Ah yes, the perplexing case of the partying PR practitioner.

As a client, you are paying a consultant for their expertise, good judgement and discretion. The foundation of any client/consultant relationship is built on trust. Once that trust is broken, the relationship becomes strained and could be irreparably damaged.

Personally, I have a low tolerance for bad judgement, which this consultant displayed in spades. Given that the consultant tried to make amends indicates that he knew he’d crossed a line. Offering a discounted rate to sweep this incident under the rug is hardly an appropriate mea culpa for a transgression of this nature. It also runs counter to the sage advice any professional would give a client facing an issue or crisis of this nature. As PR professionals, we routinely advise clients involved in reputation-related issues to get relevant information out quickly and be as transparent as possible to regain any loss of trust following the basic tenet of “when you mess up, you fess up, and then you dress up.” The consultant would be well served to heed the sage advice he would likely offer any client facing a similar situation. The prudent course of action would be for the consultant to offer a sincere apology, inform his supervisor of the incident and offer to resign the account, so another consultant could take over -- provided, of course, that you still want to work with the firm.

You are fully within your rights to report this incident to the consultant’s VP. If the consultant reported to me, some type of disciplinary action, such as a demotion, would be in order. I believe in second chances and giving someone the benefit of the doubt, but I also believe in the value of a hard lesson learned. Turning a blind eye to this type of behavior undermines the seriousness of the situation and gives the impression that the consultant dodged a bullet without any repercussions. Holding the consultant accountable for his actions would, at the very least, help reinforce the paramount importance of ethical conduct that would hopefully prompt him to think twice about violating the trust and confidence of a client in the future.

~ Martin Livingston, Principal, Living Communications Inc.

Your gut is correctly telling you to say something, pronto. While it’s kind of you to feel bad about getting the PR staffer in the hot water he will surely be in, he jumped in that pot all on his own. One of the key values PR professionals bring to the table is good judgement and what that person did very deeply violated your trust. Not only did it show a flagrant lack of ethics, it was illegal: he and his pals trespassed on your company’s property. Then, when caught, he tried to bribe his way out of it! Sing like a canary – that is NOT someone you want giving your company strategic advice or having access to confidential information. I am outraged on your behalf.

Even though it appears it was just the one staff member whose behaviour was wildly lacking in judgement, it’s time to put the agency to the test. Inform the staffer’s VP and insist that person no longer work on your account. Have a frank discussion, during which you let the PR VP know how this behaviour has made you question your trust in their team and that you are re-evaluating whether you are comfortable continuing to work with the firm. Then see how the agency’s VP responds. They might be as blindsided as you were. Now that they have their own reputation issue to manage, see how they do.

The staffer’s behaviour was such a fireable offence that if the firm doesn’t show him the door post haste, I’d look for a new agency. To be clear, I would not ask for that. It’s up to the agency to come back to you with a mitigation plan. In my opinion, if the plan doesn’t include removing an employee who is quite willing to break laws for his own enjoyment and bend rules to save his skin, then this agency is not one you want representing you, no matter how long you’ve been on their client list. There are lots of agencies out there whose staffs aren’t going to break into to your place and throw a party. I’d go with one of them.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.