No Good Deed: Can't we all be friends?

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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 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.

I’ve become very friendly with a couple of people who work for a major client. We’ve gone for coffee, lunches and drinks and in addition to talking about our kids and all the challenges of our age and stage; we (of course) talk about their workplace. One of them complained quite candidly about the other and though I didn’t do anything except make sympathetic noises, it has caused a problem. Their CEO called me on the carpet, saying it’s come to her attention that I have been “gossiping” with her staff and causing difficulties between them by repeating slurs and insults. I didn’t and I protested, but now everyone is mad at me and the situation is fraught, to say the least.I work for a very small PR firm and this is a major client. My partner is very angry with me for what she sees as “putting our income in danger.” What can I do to convince the client I’m not responsible for her bickering staff members? In the future, how can I avoid these issues while still being friendly? Should I just never become friends with a client?

When I first started out in PR, a senior practitioner shared these wise words with me: keep your own counsel. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t become friendly with your clients. It does mean your relationship is first and foremost a professional one, so conduct yourself accordingly.

This can be tricky at times, particularly as one of the hallmarks of friendship is safely sharing life’s frustrations with each other. Just remember, despite what it might seem at drinks on a Friday night, the client-consultant relationship is not one of equals. Clients, even more than colleagues, have the ability to have a very real impact to your agency’s bottom line, which as your boss pointed out, has repercussions beyond just you.

Admittedly, you were in a tight spot and it’s clear your client “friend” took your awkward listening noises as agreement and shared that with others in their office. As the saying goes, “with friends like that...” No matter what the truth, your reputation has taken a hit. Next time, try something like, “hmm, I’ve never experienced that myself” and change the subject.

Being true friends with clients works only work if you are very good friends first and the client relationship comes later; you share a similar ethical outlook; you are both excellent at your jobs, and there is complete personal and professional trust between you. Outside of that, be friendly but remember: keep your own counsel because in PR as in many professions, reputation is everything.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

The damage is done, and there’s no easy way out from here. But on the plus side, the company didn’t hire your firm for the friendship. You may not ever be able to get the CEO to believe you weren’t gossiping, and in fact a ‘she said, she said’ might make it worse, so don’t bother with that approach. Instead, offer up an apology for placing the CEO in a spot requiring her to speak to you, and then provide an approach for the way forward to make certain she knows your focus is on meeting their business needs. Your partner deserves an apology too, even though you didn’t ‘gossip’ or intend to offend, your silence implied agreement. It’s ok to befriend a client, but friend or client, if they say something inappropriate in your presence it’s always better to speak up.  It’s not always easy, but neither is regret.

Beyond the issue with this particular client, perhaps this is a good opportunity for you and your partner to talk about the ethical issues around the client-consultant relationship. Friendship can cloud clear judgment and good judgment is what your firm is being paid for. Would you be as honest as you should be if you felt your advice would hurt your client-friend’s feelings? Would you couch your words and behaviours differently knowing your client-friend makes decisions about your firm’s fees or your selection for projects? And what about dating a client? You and your partner should talk openly about what your firm policies will be with regard to client relationships and, at a minimum, set some ground rules. If you have other employees, make sure they know your rules around client relationships. 

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, Senior Program Manager, Donation and Transplant, Canadian Blood Services

Sounds like you’ve got yourself in a fine pickle here. Yours is a cautionary tale about the need to be careful when making friends at work or, even more so, with clients or customers. I don’t think the answer is to avoid making clients your friends, but your situation illustrates the risks, and the need to establish certain limits for such relationships.  

You might try talking with these feuding client-friends to explain the kind of professional trouble their fight has caused you. If they were indeed slandering you, maybe they’d recant to their boss to put you in the clear. More than likely though that’s not going to happen, because things are too heated. You’ll probably just have to suck it up, apologize to all concerned, and set some boundaries regarding how you make and maintain friendships in a professional setting in the future. 

Good corollary guidelines might include limiting alcohol and not ‘letting your hair down’ as you might with non-work friends.

~ Scott Jackson, APR Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

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.