Platform: What price loyalty in today’s PR market? - When conflicts of interest arise, the commercial view may not necessarily be the best view to take, says Miranda Kavanagh

You’re just about to land the biggest client of your career, with monthly fee income well into five figures and the prospect of a fat bonus and feature in PR Week in the offing. But there’s one snag. The price of this win is that you may have to jettison your longest-standing client in the same sector, a client who’s stuck with you through thick and thin, man and boy. What do you do? The problem of conflicts of interest can test the loyalty of even the most ethical of PR practitioners.

You’re just about to land the biggest client of your career, with

monthly fee income well into five figures and the prospect of a fat

bonus and feature in PR Week in the offing. But there’s one snag. The

price of this win is that you may have to jettison your longest-standing

client in the same sector, a client who’s stuck with you through thick

and thin, man and boy. What do you do? The problem of conflicts of

interest can test the loyalty of even the most ethical of PR

practitioners.



Potentially the most difficult circumstance for a big consultancy is

where one client bids for another. In a contested bid, if both sides are

already clients, the conventional wisdom of many has been to follow the

sanctimonious, holier than thou lead of the City professionals and stand

down both sides, at least for the duration of the bid. But where does

that leave the defender, probably caught with its pants down while the

predator has had months to plan an attack? Surely it is irresponsible to

drop a client in its greatest hour of need?



It is illuminating that neither of the so-called professional bodies for

PR, the PRCA and the IPR, issue guidelines on the resolution of

conflicts of interest. Both seem to look at the issue purely in terms of

contractual obligation, but in my experience, rather than being

contractually defined, conflicts usually fall to be resolved according

to the discretion of the agency and its client. The following

observations, gleaned from a straw poll of my peers, may be

enlightening.



Don’t let suspicion of a potential conflict prevent you going after a

piece of business - often what you see as conflict is not perceived as

that either by the existing client or the new business prospect. For

example, the difference in the relative size of either party, their

spread of products or the fragmentation of their marketplace may mean

that neither party sees a conflict.



It is good to be able to offer sector expertise, but if a clear conflict

emerges, then it helps to be able to offer the Chinese Wall approach

with separate teams sharing the sector expertise. This is something big

agencies do well but is harder for a smaller team.



If there is a clear conflict then general best practice is to stick with

a long established client. However, almost all the people I spoke to

tempered this with what they euphemistically call a commercial view,

which in essence means that they’d drop a low fee-earning client to

catch a high fee-earning company in the same sector. Where it is not a

clear cut situation, it is worth asking the following:



Is the existing client difficult to work with and likely to go

anyway?



Are they near the end of their contract and unlikely to renew? Who would

look better on the client list? How influential will any resulting

enemies be?



If you do end up dropping a client, then soften the blow by offering

advice on who they might turn to for help.



Personally I believe there is enough new business out there for one to

be able to stick with an existing client no matter what the financial

temptation of the new client, as there will always be other

opportunities.



Judging by the responses to my survey of others in the business, I

realise that this is a minority viewpoint. Surely there is, even in this

day and age, a place for loyalty, or do we believe that this is never

going to be repaid and therefore should not be offered?



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