The conflict over conflicts of interest

Call me old-fashioned, but I think about our profession in much the same way lawyers think about theirs.

The conflict over conflicts of interest

Call me old-fashioned, but I think about our profession in much the same way lawyers think about theirs. We share similar tenets about every client having the right to counsel (communications counsel, that is), as well as the belief that they have a right to have their day in court (the court of public opinion).

I also believe in the sanctity of counselor-client privilege. I'm all for transparency, but not every communication between client and counselor necessarily needs to see the light of day. The same way that reporters don't need to see both the first rough draft of a press release along with the final version that's signed off by the client.

That said, if your PR firm is going to comport itself along the lines of a law firm, then invariably you're going to have to deal with conflicts of interest.

I'm not talking about the obvious black and white conflicts. Everyone knows that if you're fortunate enough to represent Coke, then working for Pepsi in a similar capacity is not in the cards and vice versa. If you represent Ford, then taking on Toyota or Chevrolet is verboten. Common sense should dictate decision-making here, and it's pretty straightforward.

However, potential conflicts can get complicated when we contemplate taking on work with heavily diversified companies who, perhaps, compete in the same space in some ways, but have other products, services, subsidiaries, or issues that aren't, on the face of it, directly in conflict.

There are many definitions and interpretations about what does (or does not) constitute a conflict. Sometimes the lines get a little blurred. So, where do you draw the line?

A number of years ago, I worked for an agency head who once famously said, “The only client conflict we have is when they don't pay their bill.” OK, so maybe he was only half-joking, but firms often don't give enough thought to the potential landmines out there when it comes to conflicts.

Sometimes the opposite scenario is the case. I have been in a few situations where we were wringing our hands about a real (or imagined) client conflict, only to find that the clients in question didn't have a problem with the other's engagement at all.

Due diligence and communication are key.

The best way to work out potentially thorny conflict issues is to communicate with the clients involved. Tell them about the issues you're grappling with and see whether they have the same take on your situation. Reassure them about your ability to create account teams that are “fire-walled” and respect the integrity of their confidential information and communications strategy.

And if there's no getting around a conflict, create relationships with other firms like yours where you can refer business to each other and help each other out. Better to err on the side of caution and take a pass on an engagement ahead of time than to face losing a client because of lack of forethought.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US State Department, is president of public affairs firm Weber Merritt. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at

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