Wrestling with the Ethics of Marketing? 7 Rules to Consider

Recently a colleague suggested I post a comment on a competitor’s blog. He wanted me to object to the writer’s hard-sell tone and his negative comments about our product.

“Of course, don’t post it from your company email address,” he added. “Use an anonymous account.”

This exchange raised so many issues that I was concerned for a moment about who might be monitoring our email. First, to suggest that blogging shouldn’t be used for selling would make me look clueless at best and certainly hypocritical. More important, hiding my identity struck me as just plain unethical – and counterproductive to boot.

As professional services marketers, it’s our job to get people to trust us and our firms. If they engage us, they’ll likely be sharing confidential and, in many cases, intimate information. If they can’t trust what we say when we’re just trying to get to know them, how can they choose to do business with us?

The American Marketing Association’s Statement of Ethics is a good place to begin. Their guidance to marketers includes “consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards…” and “striving for good faith and fair dealing.” After all, our reputations, and those of our firms and our colleagues, are an important part of what clients are choosing. For law firms, the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provide specifics about where and how attorneys can advertise; nearly all states have adopted professional conduct rules that follow this format.

But neither guidance addresses ethical issues that marketers confront daily. Here are seven rules I’ve made for my firm.

1. Tell the Truth
It’s a simple rule, and it’s the most important. Don’t write or say anything – anywhere – that isn’t true. True is not a relative term – it’s black and white. If it looks a little grayish, don’t say it. As Katie Tolin, Marketing Director for Rea & Associates, Inc. in Canton, Ohio, puts it, “Truth in advertising is a tightrope we all must walk…and it’s a bit more challenging in professional services when you rely on many different people to deliver on your brand promise.”

2. Say It Nicely
Don’t write or say anything – anywhere – that you’d be ashamed to see on a billboard on the interstate or on the front page of the newspaper. Remember, it’s much easier to soil a reputation than to clean it up later.

3. Give Credit, and Say Thank You
We all do research before we write. It’s so easy to get information these days, and much of it is free. But that doesn’t mean you can take credit for someone else’s work. If you want to use information you found on the Internet or anywhere else, credit the source. If possible, link to it. That way you’re helping their SEO, which is a polite way of saying thank you.

4. Protect Your Clients
Never use a story about a client, even if you’ve removed their name, without asking their permission first. Your marketing is not secret; they’ll find out you told their story. If possible, think of a way they will benefit from saying yes. As Eric Majchrzak, Marketing Director at Freed Maxick & Battaglia in Buffalo puts it, “Good marketers should act as ‘advocates’ for the firm’s clients and prospects…not just the firm itself.”

5. Decide Whether Your Blog is Journalism or Marketing
You know the answer – it’s both. But for a professional services firm, where integrity is paramount, it’s best to treat it like journalism. Pretend the editor at The New York Times is going to fact check your post. Readers should feel like a real expert has just answered their questions on a complex topic and is available to them if the problem persists.

Many of us use the phrase “thought leadership” when we talk with our professionals about why they should blog or write articles. Make that true by always asking yourself:

  • Why should the audience care about this topic? Lead with that.
  • Why is this professional uniquely qualified to write about the topic? Make sure the reader sees that.
  • What should the reader do with this information that is not simply calling to engage your firm? Make sure that’s the call to action.

6. Ghostwrite with Integrity
Many of us marketers ghostwrite for our professionals all the time. Before the Internet, we pitched ideas for bylined articles to print publications or created newsletters to mail. When digital media opened up opportunities, we began producing enewsletters, contributing to online publications, and producing blogs. The goal was to demonstrate how smart and savvy our professionals are.

Did the professionals actually sit at the keyboard and crank out that material? Unlikely. While my accounting partners are real experts in their practice areas, it would take them far longer to write an article than to be interviewed and have me write it. Time is money.

My rule: If the ideas come from the expert, and I build an article, blog post, newsletter, or seminar content from those ideas, it’s their work. Of course, there’s a gray area: What about the companies that provide prewritten content and sell it with geographic exclusivity for us to brand and share? I try not to use this, but if I do, I make sure it appears without a professional’s byline.

7. Respect Your Competitors
I was raised to believe it’s bad form to say negative things about competitors. Differentiating your firm should not involve saying bad things about others. Unless you’ve been their client, how can you know whether the rumors about their poor service, bait-and-switch pricing, or questionable technical skill are true? And it’s just bad marketing manners. Differentiating yourself means saying positive things about yourself that are truthful, can be supported with evidence, and make a difference to clients.

For example, my firm is involved in a joint venture to develop and distribute mobile apps for attorneys (http://www.trialpad.com). We were the first to market in our category, but others followed quickly. Our strategy: Continue to promote the positive benefits of our product and specifically stress those that competitors can’t claim. We’ve taken the high ground; reviewers and users are making the case for us.

What about gathering competitive intelligence? Some ideas:

  • Ask your clients. If a client chooses to switch to you from a competitor, it’s certainly appropriate to ask why.
  • Ask your staff. If you hire an employee who worked for the competitor, it’s certainly ethical to ask how they did things and what the employee sees that’s different.
  • Use Google for more than simple search. Set up Google alerts so you can see the news your competitors are making. Try Google’s advanced search to find more obscure documents, such as PDFs of white papers they have published.
  • Use social media. Following competitors on LinkedIn and Twitter or “Liking” them on Facebook can be very rewarding. If they post information publicly, it’s completely ethical for you to watch what they’re saying.

One of the most important steps to managing ethics in your marketing practice is to establish rules. If my rules don’t meet your needs, create some for yourself and your firm. That way you’ll have a code of conduct to consult when someone suggests a move that crosses the ethical line.

Janet Altman is a Marketing Principal at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.