First, be true to yourself: Managing conflicts of interest

Water breaking over wooden posts

A few weeks ago, one of our municipal leaders called early one morning, and without so much as hello, fired off a question: “Where do you stand on legalizing marijuana?”

“Well,” I replied, “given all the municipal work we do, it would be a huge conflict of interest for us. I wouldn’t be able to look any of our police chiefs in the eye and say I thought legalizing marijuana was a good idea.”

“So,” he responded, “you wouldn’t take on this ballot initiative as a client?”

“No,” I affirmed, “it would be too big of a conflict.”

“That’s the answer I wanted to hear!” he exclaimed, then hung up.

As a strategic communications firm, we routinely handle issues that present a conflict of interest. Much of the time, the answers are clear-cut: If we already represent one business or organization in a particular industry or sector, we won’t be able to take on a second client in that same industry. The potential for conflict is too great. After all, if you have two auto suppliers and get a media request to interview one, which one do you choose for the opportunity? And how do you tell the client not selected why?

It is often easy to turn down a representation based on our current client list. The line isn’t necessarily so bright when it comes to the marijuana issue. In truth, I hadn’t given the question any thought prior to fielding that call. But municipal clients make up a large portion of who Sabo PR is as a firm, so the answer turned out to be easy.

That’s not always the case – and that got me to thinking this weekend about how to navigate conflicts of interest.

Be true to yourself.

  • A senior female executive I admire greatly and have worked with for decades recently found herself left behind when ownership of her company changed hands. She shared the news via Facebook, noting that her name – and her good reputation – were her brand. As she’s mulling opportunities for the next chapter, she shared that she’s going to be “true to myself” in evaluating options. Such great advice. We strive to evaluate opportunities to ensure that prospective clients will fit in with who we are as an agency – and who we represent.

Remember your friends.

  • Years ago, I brought in a very small manufacturing client to the agency where I was working. It was a great client – good leadership team, open to opportunities and on a growth track. So I was devastated when a firm owner told me I had to “fire” this client after a bigger manufacturer in the same industry expressed interest in working with us. That decision never felt right to me – and was one of the many reasons I decided to set out my own shingle in 2003. I’ve had to turn down the occasional bigger fish because we already represent someone in that space – and it’s always been the right decision.

Recognize you can’t have it all.

  • A professional services firm has gotten called out on social media after taking clients on both sides of an issue. On one hand, it’s zealously representing residents concerned over an environmental issue. On the other hand, it’s representing an company alleged to have contributed to the problem. Confused residents are questioning how the same firm can be on both sides. Technically, this isn’t a true conflict of interest, but it is a positional conflict – and should be avoided. It’s important to realize you can’t have it all. Deciding on one course of action, one group of clients means you have to say no to a conflicting course of action or client – or risk losing your credibility.

Be transparent.

  • Of course, not every prospective conflict winds up being an actual conflict – but you have to be transparent about it. Case in point: We had been doing work for a municipality in West Michigan for several years when we were contacted by a second municipality interested in our services. On its face, the ask was a conflict, wasn’t it? We shouldn’t represent competitors in the same sphere. But after conversations with both city managers, we agreed that the municipalities weren’t competitors in the traditional sense of the word. In our community, most municipalities work collaboratively with one another to address issues that don’t stop at city or township boundaries. I always ask before bringing on a new municipal client to make sure our current municipalities are comfortable with each addition.

Don’t be afraid to say no.

  • Early in my SPR days, I met with a business owner who was percolating on a big idea to make a positive change in our community. During the course of our two-hour discussion, he laid out facts and figures, discussing plans for a complicated land swap and painting a happily-ever-after scenario for all parties. I didn’t understand the intricacies of his proposal and, after a little due diligence, realized he didn’t have such a stellar reputation. While it wasn’t a business conflict, I was uncomfortable aligning myself with this company, so I politely said no, thanks. He chose another agency to represent him in what would be a failed venture – and in a second venture that resulted in him facing criminal charges. If it doesn’t pass the sniff test, don’t be afraid to say no.

Make referrals.

  • And if an opportunity does pass the sniff test but you still have a conflict, make a referral to another agency. We have a few like-minded agencies in our Rolodex we send prospects to when we are conflicted out – and again, it is always the right thing to do.



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