No Good Deed: "You need to remember you work for me.”

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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 our expert panel 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.

Today’s dilemma:

I work for a private company with a very hands-on CEO/owner.  In producing a sensitive story for our newsletter, I contacted one of our major customers, illustrating the article with photos and information about their use of our products.  Once they approved the final version of the story, I gave them my word it would not be changed.  But when my boss was reviewing the content of the newsletter, he made significant alterations to the story that I know will horrify the customer. I appealed to my boss, explaining my promise and he just said, “You need to remember you work for me.”

Your boss is right when he says you work for him. And unless he’s already been very clear about responsibilities, it’s important to make that clarification. This is especially important when working with someone described as being “hands on”.  You could have checked by asking, “Do you need to see the final draft before this story is approved/published?” It may also be necessary to clarify the process when including clients in articles, especially when the matter is sensitive. For example, “I intend to include an interview with client XYZ. Is there a particular angle you would like for me to pursue?” Your boss is right when he says you work for him and the company.

But for now there is the issue of a promise you made to the client that needs to be withdrawn. Tell the truth. You might say your boss has final approval on corporate materials and you’re sorry you gave the impression that what the two of you prepared was final. Your boss completed his customary review for approval of the newsletter and has some comments on the article you would like to share. Or, you may need to scrap your original approach and rework the article without the client’s perspective. If this is the case, you need to let the client know that the direction of the article has shifted and you will be taking a different approach. Hopefully, you will be able to work together on an article in the future.

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

Your challenge isn’t with the CEO, despite perceived micro managing. Your challenges are a weak understanding of your role as a public relations practitioner and poor business acumen.  Let’s review the relevant best practices:

  1. Always vet sensitive communications issues with senior management. 

  2. Don’t promise what is not yours to promise (CPRS Code of Ethics #8).

  3. If your CEO reviews the newsletter's content, he – not the customer – signs off on the final draft.

  4. Ask yourself what loyalty to your organization means: management first or customers?

  5. Think like a journalist and use editorial integrity.  Don’t treat newsletter stories as advertisements that customers approve (unless they areadvertorials).

  6. Increase senior management’s trust in you by developing newsletter protocols and editorial approaches.

  7. Find a mentor to counsel you in situations like this. Leaning on credible communications experts can help you become a stronger practitioner.

Knowing how your customer thinks is admirable. Apply that critical audience analysis to your CEO. Remember: he authorizes your salary, can promote you for exceptional public relations brainpower or can fire you for poor decision-making and insubordination.

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

Whether you can successfully extract yourself from that special place between “Rock” and “Hard Place” begins with this question:

Did you have the authority to promise the client that the article would not be changed?If no, then you owe an apology to your boss, and to the client.If yes, then it’s time for a different conversation with the boss.  You could say, “I can see it’s important to you to approve the article, but can we clarify things? You have never told me before that I do not have the authority to come to a final version with the client and promise them that it would not be changed. And this is what we have always done with our clients.”

Either way, somebody has to let the client know what has happened. The person to do that could be your boss, or it could be you.

If you’re stuck with explaining to the client, doing so without openly blaming the boss is going to be really challenging. Maybe start with something like,“I know I committed to you that the article would not be changed. However, I’m afraid I discovered that the piece did not meet all our communications requirements, and it has been altered.”

As for your future relationships with the client and your boss, alas, I think of a line oft used in Star Wars (and by Indiana Jones): “I have a bad feeling about this.” 

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

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.