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Ethical and legal behaviour is a core public relations principle. One of our responsibilities is to protect other creatives’ intellectual property (IP).

One of the key assets of a PR person is enthusiasm for the client. Companies want consultants who will push them to the fore persuasively; someone else will always have another great story the journalist could cover instead.

So, it’s understandable if sometimes that enthusiasm totters over into hyperbole. As news providers, we guard against such moments of puffery, but most journalists understand that we will be making the most of our clients’ capabilities.

Avoid intellectual property theft

What’s not acceptable, of course, is when the PR’s commitment to his or her client’s cause leads them to give the client the credit for something that rightly belongs to someone else. At its most basic, this is extremely annoying for the firm that deserves the credit; at worst, it’s passing off – a copyright offence.

The irony, of course, is that creative PR companies are hard wired to be aware of our own intellectual property. We are writers, videographers, photographers and we expect and demand credit for our own work.

Which of us have not put our best work into a new business pitch only to be politely shown the door then sitting back to see the client undertake precisely the campaign we had put forward to them?

Against that background, as brand guardians for our clients, it is also incumbent on us to ensure they respect the intellectual property of other creative businesses. This is not simply guarding against malice; many PR gaffes are the result of nothing more than carelessness, sloppy wording or not noticing.

We cannot rely on the client to get it right either, so the answer is eternal vigilance.

I speak from experience. Many years ago, I wrote in a press release that a client had ‘designed and manufactured’ a particular item for a customer. On publication, this more than irritated the customer’s design agency, who had come up with the concept. It resulted in a solicitor’s letter and a grovelling apology from both the client and my agency. A simple change of wording to ‘developed and manufactured’ would have nipped the issue in the bud, but giving the design agency their own due credit in the client’s release would have been even better.

Lesson learnt. As I now vet news for a network of PR agencies across Europe, my eyes are attuned for exactly this looseness of thought. Just last week, we were able to prevent a client’s German subsidiary suffering almost exactly the same problem.

Most businesses are interdependent these days. Significant projects result from the expertise of several suppliers coming together. It is the responsibility of the PR consultant to ensure that all stories reflect and honour what each of those parties brought to the project.

This is particularly true when some of the suppliers are small businesses – a small design agency, a printer, a freelance project manager. Companies like these may not have the muscle to protest vigorously as their work gets trashed and dumped by the bigger supplier.

Ethics, integrity and self-interest

It’s partly about ethics and integrity, but it also reflects a more self-interested concern. Small companies grow; they merge into larger ones; their employees leave and remember who helped them on the way up. Looking after the interests of all suppliers is just like the old adage of ‘always be polite to the receptionist’. You never know what they will end up running or into whose ear they can pour their poison.

Protecting your agency and your clients against accidental intellectual property theft comes back down to the most basic PR advice – if you make a claim in a piece of work, always demand to know whether it can be substantiated. If you cannot justify every word, every statistic, every pictogram, then replace it with something you can. Or simply press the delete key.

Best of all, involve the other parties in the discussion – the insights they bring will usually enrich your story and make it even more persuasive and powerful when you are pitching the piece to the media. One of a series of blogs on PR ethics.

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash