Explicitly defining conflict can stem firm-client feuds

Management consultants often work for companies within the same industry. In fact, they are hired for their depth of experience in a particular market sector. But are management consultants better at keeping confidential information from client competitors than PR professionals?

Management consultants often work for companies within the same industry. In fact, they are hired for their depth of experience in a particular market sector. But are management consultants better at keeping confidential information from client competitors than PR professionals?

Or have they established a better method of defining conflicts and better internal policies to assure clients of confidentiality?

While client conflict and exclusivity policies have grown more liberal in some cases - due in part to client mergers, a need for more specialized agency expertise and depth, global expansion, agency service expansion, joint ventures, and marketing alliances - PR firms are frequently challenged on their ability to manage conflict.

The Council of PR Firms' July 2002 New Business Development Study revealed that new-business opportunities for PR firms fell an average of 21% from 2001, most often due to real or perceived conflicts. That may not be the best decision for the firm who wants to expand its business, or the client who may be denied a strong, qualified agency partner.

Professional standards set forth by the Council require that PR practitioners maintain client confidentiality. Firms know their reputations are on the line when it comes to keeping client confidence. The issue to be clarified with clients is the definition of conflict. For example, a local (e.g.

statewide, East Coast) campaign should not preclude an agency from working for a competitive company somewhere else (e.g. different state, region, or country). If clients demand exclusivity, they should be willing to compensate their firm for this restriction.

The Council, in cooperation with the New York law firm of Davis & Gilbert, LLP and the Council's Client Advisory Committee, an advisory board of more than 30 corporate communications officers, developed Conflict and Exclusivity Guidelines for Public Relations Firms.

Conflicts are in the eye of the beholder, and trust often plays a role in the interpretation. In some cases, the conflicts are truly head-to-head. In others, there is only a conflict in one area of the business.

In others still, the issue is one of perception or emotion. Whatever the nature of the conflict, there are many acceptable and successful models for handling conflict issues when they arise. Considerations for the scope or duration of the task, the size of the account, the location of the assignment, and the skills being purchased from the firm should be analyzed to determine what is a legitimate conflict. Here are models for consideration for both the firm and its clients:

- Ensure that the firm has designated a separate team to handle the client's business and that the agency will take necessary provisions to ensure confidentiality among its staff. This generally means no sharing of client information between teams.

- If the firm has more than one office, identify which one will handle the account, thus maintaining physical separation. Be certain that each office observes appropriate conflict policies.

- If the conflict exists only with a portion of the assignment, consider subcontracting the conflicting project to another agency or freelancer.

- Ensure total separation of services and practices, allowing an agency, for example, to provide corporate communications work for one client and online communications for another.

Ensuring the protection of clients' proprietary information is essential to making these models work. The guidelines highlight six key strategies for maintaining confidentiality:

1. Provide agency confidentiality agreements to the client

2. Provide employee non-disclosure agreements

3. Create a secure team working environment, which can include technology solutions like separate servers

4. Restrict information sharing at internal meetings and presentations

5. Ensure team motivation through distinct team groups

6. Ensure access to the most appropriate agency resources for each team

Details on implementing these strategies, as well as more information on how a firm can help protect its clients' intellectual capital, can be found in the complete Conflict and Exclusivity Guidelines document.

A free copy is available in the Client Services section of the Council's website.

The mission of the Council of Public Relations Firms is to strengthen the recognition and role of PR firms in corporate strategy, business performance, and social education; to serve as an authoritative source of information and expert comment; and to help set standards for the industry. For information about the Council and its members, please visit www.prfirms.org or call 1-877-PRFIRMS (1-877-773-4767).

- This column is contributed and paid for by The Council of PR Firms.

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