By Kathy Hubbell, APR, M.S., Fellow PRSA
Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, I worked for an unethical agency.
I didn’t know it when I first took the job, of course. In fact, it took a little while for things to become clear. The agency was double-billing quite often – charging by the hour as well as charging a project fee for the same bit of work. If it wasn’t doing that, it was casually marking up time sheets. A quarter-hour spent returning phone calls somehow became a half-hour. Two hours on copywriting were billed as 2-1/2 hours. Out-of-pocket costs were marked up.
To make matters worse, the proprietor of the agency was tyrannical, yelling at clients on the phone in front of all of us, and yelling at us if things didn’t seem exactly right – full-volume, booming-voice yelling. He would actually follow us one floor down to the graphic designer’s office if he thought we’d been out of the office for too long. One of my colleagues used to go home and have nightmares.
Yes, I quit the job, even though I was a single parent and did not have another job lined up. That’s what you have to do. Fortunately, I found another job within the month.
But the ethical problems that company presented me didn’t stop. Every so often, I would meet people wanting to apply for a job in the area, and they would mention this company. I would warn them. I felt obligated.
However, I would never warn a prospective client. I was completely torn by PRSA’s Code of Ethics, which says “Promoting healthy and fair competition among professionals preserves an ethical climate while fostering a robust business environment.
I tended to come down on the side of providing the widest choice of practitioner options, and that’s what I would tell prospective clients of the firm; I would make sure they knew about other agencies in the area which could provide good services.
As for the firm’s prospective employees? The only thing I could fall back on was PRSA’s emphasis on “fair competition,” because this agency did not present fair competition – not by a long stretch.
Unfortunately, this kind of dilemma is more common than most of us would like to admit. We want to believe all of our competitors are ethical, honest, and full of wonderful people. We know that a rising tide floats all boats; but we also know there are those boats on their way down, threatening to drag us (or at least our reputations as PR practitioners) along with them.
What do any of you do when asked about a firm for which you have no respect? I’d love to hear. You can email me at Kathy@adscripts.com. Please, no company names or identifying information!