THOUGHT LEADER: Small shops can take big role in demonstrating ethics during a down economy

Despite the Bush Administration's recurring predictions of a national economic recovery, it's still pretty ugly out there in the PR business. Many agencies, both big and small, have felt seasick for the past couple of years. And, much like the anthrax vaccine last year, there just doesn't seem to be enough Dramamine to go around.

Despite the Bush Administration's recurring predictions of a national economic recovery, it's still pretty ugly out there in the PR business. Many agencies, both big and small, have felt seasick for the past couple of years. And, much like the anthrax vaccine last year, there just doesn't seem to be enough Dramamine to go around.

In this business, we all know that the pursuit of money (power, prestige, influence, or whatever) can drive people to do the most confounding things. In a weak economy, though, it seems even easier to rationalize less than honorable behavior, which is why I want to argue in favor of a practical code of business ethics - especially for smaller shops and sole practitioners, which make a huge share of PR counselors these days.

Recently, the PRSA and other organizations have offered up much advice on matters of ethics, but I'm not sure everyone has been paying attention. I attribute that, in part, to a misconception among some PR pros that only big agencies have the motive, means, and opportunity to execute ruthless tactics. That ain't necessarily so.

So what can we do to be better? Now more than ever, I think it's imperative to concentrate on making current clients happy, rather than scheming to get anyone else's. And trying to lure someone out of a competing agency who promises to deliver an important, lucrative account is a risky proposition even in the best of times. These days, clients don't like being unceremoniously traded and they know they have many other options. In baseball, no matter how fast you are, you can't steal first base - you must earn it. The same holds true when it comes to good accounts.

On a related note, it's clear many companies have a death grip on the purse strings right now. But, if by some fluke, your off-hand recommendation of a fun but non-essential agency service is accepted, think long and hard before doing the work. Smart clients will be stunned and appreciative if you tell them to spend more money on the unsexy basics.

Speaking of compensation, it seems every time an agency consciously tries to "buy" a piece of business or a project, it strikes a shoddy bargain. That's especially true if the firm has tacit plans to make up the loss later. Even inexperienced or unsophisticated clients know that deals that look too good to be true rarely are.

If you're like me, you've probably been amazed by some recent agency transformations in your part of the country. So where's the ethical dimension? If you're a b-to-b specialist, is it unethical to chase an account for bottled water or cat litter? No, but you really won't like the tales you'll have to craft to get the business. Instead, stand tall and refer them on to a more appropriate firm.

Speaking of doing right by your competitors, the agency business is tackle football alright, but like in the NCAA, direct or indirect taunting is strictly bush league. Jeer and you'll find yourself on the other end of the joke soon enough. And you should say "thank you" far more frequently, even to people with whom you may have tangled in the past. The universe has an uncanny way of balancing out small favors and acknowledgements, so make lots of deposits in your account.

Obviously, it's important for smaller firms to keep overhead as low as possible, but some of your external business partners may be fighting for their financial lives. Vow to pay your bills on time, even if that means deferring some personal income. Also, pay interns, freelancers, and contract consultants as well as possible. If cash flow is a major concern, partially compensate non-permanent staff in other ways, such as free or low-cost access to office space, online services, or equipment. No, I'm not advocating a return to a barter economy, just encouraging a little more creativity. Of course, in addition to cash, the best way to reward anyone in those categories is to give them solid job leads and referrals to other potential clients.

And while it's incredibly difficult to take on non-paying clients when you might not have enough of the check-writing variety, there's almost always a silver lining to a pro bono account. They key is to only accept the volunteer assignments that you and your team actually like and can execute superbly, not the ones you're pressured into taking for all the wrong reasons.

Finally, don't forget that this too shall pass. Anyone who's been in the agency world for a decade or more knows ours is an up-and-down endeavor. But if you want to come out of the current trough intact, be the kind of agency executive you'd want to hire.

  • Marilyn Hawkins is president of Hawkins & Company PR in Seattle.

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