No Good Deed: Destined for Greatness or Unemployment?

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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.

Dilemma du jour: Destined for Greatness or Unemployment?

I’ve been with a small but very busy PR firm just six months. I love the fast pace and I’m killing the work. The principal headhunted me for my talent and my knowledge of a specific industry sector. We’re pitching for a big account in that sector soon and I know we could win it and do a fantastic job for the client. In fact, I created an entire campaign for just such a client when I was in my previous job. In that case, we never had a chance to use my campaign, but it would be perfect for this pitch. Do I have any obligation to tell my new employer I came up with the idea while working for another firm? Isn’t it my idea anyway? I should mention I’m in a different province now and it’s unlikely my former employer will ever see the campaign.

What our panel says…

Signed, Destined for Greatness

Let’s put it this way: if you don’t disclose that your proposed campaign is based on one developed for a client of your former employer, you might find yourself “destined for unemployment” rather than greatness. While you may not like it, the ideas you come up with on an employer’s dime belong to them, not you. To drive this point home, some organizations even include this stipulation in employee contracts. It sounds like your former employer didn’t but either way, letting your new firm risk its own reputation by presenting a copycat campaign as your team’s original brainchild is a bad idea in oh-so-many ways.

You don’t mention how similar the two campaigns would be. There is a huge difference between using the same combination of communications tools to reach a similar audience with a similar message, and something like launching a new product with the same tagline, brand identity and promo plan as you proposed for a different client. In fact, the first option is perfectly legit-you’d just be drawing on that industry expertise you were hired for. I hope I don’t have to spell out what the second one is.

This is a great opportunity to show your agency’s principal why they headhunted you. Tell them about the campaign you developed and that it wasn’t used (ideally, share why). Suggest ways the original campaign idea could be adapted to make it clearly focused on the current client (remember, in the age of the internet, geography doesn’t matter). Your agency head can then decide what they are comfortable with and you can be confident you’re making a positive contribution to planning, not leaving the door open to nasty repercussions.  

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

Be very, very careful….

First, an assumption: when you created the campaign for your former firm/client, you produced it “on the job” and were thus paid for it. If that is so, then, in the absence of any legal agreement to the contrary, you can pretty much take it that the intellectual property rights to the campaign material are held by your past employer. If so, it’s really not your idea and is not yours to pirate, copy, re-brand, or even to show to your new boss.

In this digital age, there is every chance that the past employer will see your new campaign, and if s/he recognizes it (or elements of it) you could have a problem. Think of those copyright suits in which a singer or band is accused of stealing as little as a riff or a bar or two from someone else’s song or music.

Can you tell your current boss that you worked on a similar campaign in the past? Even that is a little risky. What happens if, naturally, he wants the details? You might be able to discuss the basic thrust of the campaign, but getting into specifics could be dangerous indeed. Could you start by talking to with your past employer? Tell them what’s up and the dilemma you face. Would they be comfortable with you using some or all of their intellectual property? At least this would get you off to a transparent start. And the outcome would let you know how to start the conversation with your new employer.

~ Donald MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc.

If you were on staff in your previous job, then your employer would have a reasonable expectation that any creative work done while on the clock is rightfully theirs, subject to any contracts or employment agreements stating otherwise.  

Although ideas can’t be copyrighted, rights to any written copy or designs are automatic and longstanding. So how well documented was that campaign? “I created an entire campaign” sounds pretty well developed. This could expose your new firm or prospective client to a world of inconvenient, expensive and/or embarrassing intellectual property challenges.

Even if you got express permission from the former employer, who is to say they won’t change their mind if your campaign ends up being staggeringly successful, finding a legal loophole to reassert copyright? And yes, you’d certainly be well advised to inform your new employer as well as the prospective client so they are aware of such risks.

This complicates your pitch with way too much baggage. Far better to just start from scratch and wow them all with a fresh idea. It sounds like you have the skills, confidence and experience to come up with something great!

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


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.