No Good Deed: New kids on the block



No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it. We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.


We’re ‘new kids on the block’ — a fresh, exciting agency doing good work and looking for more. A client has sought us out, but the project they want done cannot be accomplished with the desired result.  That is, no one can deliver what they’re looking for.  We need the work, so do we just go ahead?  Is it ethical to accept an assignment that is transparently un-doable?

It’s a challenge to be approached by clients who have preconceived notions of what can be accomplished. Do they know what is achievable; are their expectations out of whack, or both?  The potential client’s position may never change, but as a new agency you may want to consider preparing another achievable option that could be a steppingstone towards their goal. As a team, you will need to decide if you want to put the time and effort into what’s involved in this approach. A preliminary conversation with the potential client may help test the waters. On the other hand their expectations may simply not be achievable. Keep in mind these two points from the CPRS Code:

  1. A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information.

  2. A member shall not guarantee specified results beyond the member’s capacity to achieve.

As an agency, new or old, your reputation is paramount. To enter into an impossible, failure-fraught agreement can tarnish your brand. To deliver a project that reaches beyond the truth will live with your agency forever. To work with the client to reshape and clarify what can be done could be a great learning for both of you.

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant

If you were to “just go ahead,” you’d have to come up with a new corporate slogan: “We rip off clients.” “We aim to displease.” “The agency that can't do it.” I think you get my point. In a more serious vein, do try to sit down with the client again. Is there a way to make the assignment doable? Even if it doesn't hit 100% of the client’s crazy hopes and dreams, can you get to an acceptable 85% of the “desired result”?

With luck, you can persuade this potential client to accept reality. Often their unrealistic expectations include some wild target numbers, and gently asking, “How did you arrive at that number?” does the trick.

Or a re-analysis of their expectations, beginning with your introductory “Let’s start at the beginning here and build a plan” may render them somewhat more sane.

The one thing you can't do, of course, is to just go ahead on a project that is “transparently un-doable.” You’d wear the outcome and the reputation forever.

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

Whether you’re a new or established firm, only take on projects at which you will be successful. And as ‘new kids,’ you need to establish and brand your reputation at the onset. Become a “go-to” agency. If you can’t accomplish the goal, avoid the temptation to take work just because it’s available.  My advice:

  1. Say no and respectfully tell them why.

  2. Look at other options. It’s your job to consider all possible angles, without spinning, without promising the un-doable and without violating the CPRS code of ethics. Choose a SWOT analysis approach: “Why can’t it be done? What can be done instead? Is it an achievable objective if points A, B and C are implemented first?”

Arrange an in-person meeting. Discuss SMART/RACE objectives. Brainstorm with the potential client and show them the bigger picture by submitting a proposal that is phase-centric: Their original goal will likely be Phase 3. However, watch what you include, so that another agency can’t “use” your vision if you’re not selected.  Never take the job for the money only. You don’t want to be seen as “the new kids on the chopping block.” Build your reputation rather than your failures.

~ Ange Frymire Fleming FCPRS, APR, president-Vocal Point Communications & KPU professor in Applied Communications

About the Author

Deborah Folka 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.