The Agency Business: Keeping confidential relationships from leaking to the media

When clients want to keep their agency relationships under wraps, PR firms must ensure that staff know the consequences of spreading information, though at times it's best to be up front.

When clients want to keep their agency relationships under wraps, PR firms must ensure that staff know the consequences of spreading information, though at times it's best to be up front.

It could be the worst-case scenario: a phone call from a reporter who has managed to learn of your agency's confidential relationship with a client. Most agencies would like to believe they have safeguards in place to prevent this sort of confidentiality breach. But slipups are easier than many PR professionals assume. It might come in the form of an agency's phone number on a press release, a salesperson disclosing too much information at a trade show, or even someone overhearing chitchat between coworkers over drinks. Most clients, especially those going through a crisis, "don't want to have the perception that they need this type of help," says Mike Paul, president of New York-based MGP & Associates PR, which specializes in crisis and reputation management. "Confidentiality is one of our greatest currencies." Paul draws a distinction between clients who only want counsel and those who want media relations. "It's much more difficult when the client says, 'We want you to take the lead and put your name on the press release and serve as a spokesperson,'" he says. Peter Himler, chief media officer at Edelman, notes that, in many cases, keeping client confidentiality is as easy as simply referring to an agency representative as a "spokesperson." "If the client authorizes us to serve as a spokesperson, identifying us as a spokesperson is not inaccurate or misleading," he says. But if the journalist is aware of the relationship, "there's nothing you can do about that - it's a fact of life in our business," he says. Old press releases - living indefinitely on the internet - can come back to haunt a client who wants to use the same agency on a confidential project. In these cases, agencies might consider assigning another group within the firm to handle the new assignment, so even the former media contacts aren't aware of the work. "Establish an internal 'China Wall' at the agency," says Tim O'Brien, principal of Pittsburgh-based O'Brien Communications. "Sometimes it creates confusion, but in a professional organization it works." O'Brien also suggests that clients use different agencies for more sensitive projects than they would for day-to-day media relations and campaigns. To prevent leaks from inside the agency, Barry Epstein, president and CEO of Barry R. Epstein Associates in Boca Raton, FL, stresses that information should be shared on a need-to-know basis. "I've got some clients who pay me to keep their name out of the media," he says. At Atlanta-based Duffey Communications, the importance of confidentiality is stressed during the hiring process and brought up again during training periods. "Duffey has an intensive verbal and written screening process," says Nichole Taylor, director of account services, in an e-mail. "For less experienced staff, professional development programs are effective in showcasing case studies on how to - but, more importantly, how not to - handle situations that have breach-of-confidentiality ramifications." O'Brien notes that every employee - including secretaries and interns, who are often overlooked - should sign the same confidentiality agreement and attend meetings to learn the consequences of breaching it. Moreover, he advises agencies to assign projects code names and get in the habit of using them, even in internal staff meetings. "The key is that the senior client relationship manager makes everyone aware of the rules of the account," Himler says. Once information is leaked, the agency must determine what got out, where it came from, and who knows it. Then the client must be notified. Epstein notes that sometimes the best defense is maintaining good relationships with reporters. He recalls a situation in which he was able to deflect attention from his relationship with a client by ascertaining what information the reporter really wanted and leading the interview in another direction. Sometimes the best answer is to admit to working with a client, Paul notes. "The truth is going to be the greatest tool that you have to rehabilitate your reputation," he says.

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