This post is adapted from the Ethical Voices podcast interview with Padilla president Matt Kucharski.

How do you work through that type of situation [conflicting clients or conflicting client prospects]?

There are really three things that guide us. One is various industry codes of ethics. The PRSA code of ethics is a great starting point and these days there are others for advertising, social, direct marketing, etc. 

Part of the PRSA code specifies the need for disclosure. Clients need to know who we represent, and we certainly don’t want a client to find out in the media that we’re representing an interest that might be counter to their point of view. Then there needs to be agreement between the two clients that it’s okay for Padilla to represent them both. Just as important, we as an agency must feel comfortable representing both interests. We can do this through compartmentalization of teams or representation by different brands. Or maybe we see the opportunity for these things to coexist.

Beyond the codes of ethics, we have other mechanisms. We have a worksheet we use to provide guidance for controversial clients if we’re unsure it’s one we should be representing. Some of the criteria include: Does the client serve a noble purpose? Are their claims based on solid evidence? Are they being treated unfairly or are they misunderstood? Can our employees get behind this? Does it pass the Mom Test? We find this helps us make sure that we’re not making a decision based purely on emotion or on the almighty dollar – which would mean we’re not living by OUR purpose.

The third element that drives us are the values and beliefs that Padilla has put into place and continues to cultivate throughout the organization. Those values absolutely help us resolve ethical dilemmas. We have six core values:

  • Walk in Their World
  • Wonder and Wander
  • Think as Many
  • Work Brave
  • Build Trust
  • Own It and Act On It

These values and beliefs, collectively, help us think through whether we’re doing the right thing. It’s not always easy. Sometimes, the emotional reaction, the very first reaction, is the wrong one, and you have to step back and think about what’s driving it. This is often the time to think about bringing in colleagues and evaluating it from their perspective as well.

For example, let’s take a company that 10 or so years ago did some really, really awful stuff, and they’re still dealing with fallout today. There’s no question that they did it, but since then, based on detailed conversations with our contacts, we’ve learned that their leadership team has completely turned over and they’ve actively shown that they are on a different path. We could run for the hills and be justified in doing so. Or we could “work brave” and follow our own purpose, which is to help good companies build, grow and protect their brands and reputations. 

Sometimes, of course, those beliefs can be in conflict – and we absolutely need to consider if other clients, employees or other entities would question why we’re working with them. Has the company really turned the corner and is doing things differently, or is the company still an awful company? Likewise, we might have some colleagues who, based on their principles, assert that we shouldn’t work for this company based on what they did. Then you may have others, such as those on the Crisis + Critical Issues Team, who could argue that it’s our job is to help companies like this right themselves and move forward. To me, that’s a healthy debate, and a sign of an evolved and mature organization that really thinks things through.

It is important to note that we never force an employee to work for a client they don’t feel comfortable with, and we have, on several occasions, had employees opt out of work that did not fit with their own personal beliefs or experiences. 

We have to resist falling into the trap that has been created in the crazy media and political environment we’re in now that says there’s only one right and everyone else is wrong. Worse yet, if you disagree with me, you’re my enemy. When we do that, there’s really no way for any organization to evolve or transform, and that’s a shame. Every organization will run into adversity. How it responds and moves forward determines whether it’s a good company or not.

It can certainly be an ethical dilemma taking on a questionable client, but if you look at your values, if you have criteria and if you follow a code of ethics, you can work your way through it.


Did you miss last week’s post? Catch up with “Facing Ethical Challenges” here.