Telling stories

Freelance ethics: who’s fooling who?

Posted by southwrite on September 24, 2009

Image by flickr user laverrue. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Image by flickr user laverrue. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Like most freelancers I work for many clients. One day I’m reporting for a daily newspaper and the next writing press releases for a Fortune 500 company.

Although I use pretty much the same skills, each job puts me in a different role. A newspaper editor expects me to gather facts and present them in an unbiased and straightforward manner. Usually I operate under some very specific rules such as only producing quotes that reflect what a source actually said.

Producing a press release or corporate collateral piece is different. A sales momentum announcement is usually filled with glowing customer quotes and positive statements. You won’t hear about how the company is leading the market not just in new sales, but also established customer losses.

Usually corporate freelance never produces anything like an ethical dilemma. Most companies aren’t trying to hide ugly truths from the public, but some are and that’s where it can get sticky for you.

Wendell Potter, the former director of corporate communications for insurance giant CIGNA, left his job to become a whistle blower on health insurance practices. When he testified before Congress recently his words were hardily those of a PR flack. “I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick—all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.”

A few years ago I found myself doing a considerable amount of work for a company whose product made me more than a little uneasy. Sitting in meetings listening to corporate executives blast and ridicule government regulators and even their own customers didn’t help much. Eventually the assignments came to an end. I was happy that I didn’t have to tell myself stories of how I wasn’t really helping to promote a company that was damaging the lives of people I knew.

With the demise of established newspapers and other media, more and more unemployed journalists are finding themselves in freelancing. Like me many of them are finding work with businesses and, undoubtedly, some will have to tell themselves they aren’t compromising their ethics.

Is it possible to have the same ethics with every client or are your ethical considerations going to shift? Can you follow the same code of conduct at the New York Times and a tobacco company or security contractor?

Some people will contend that freelance ethics is a contradiction in term. If you’re selling your skills to the highest bidder than your ethics go with them.

I don’t think that working for a variety of clients – including a wide variety of business clients – means that you have to compromise what you believe in.

Ethics is always a personal choice. Plenty of journalists have betrayed their craft, while many public relations practitioners maintain the highest code of conduct. You decide what it’s going to be for you.

Here are some tips that may help you in avoiding conflicts of interest and getting a good night’s sleep:

  • Establish your own code of ethics: what you will and won’t do for a client. It should include both doing a good job and acting ethically.
  • Know the company, it product and its reputation before you accept an assignment.
  • Make sure the company’s product or service is one you can feel good about. If you’re active in the peace movement than maybe a Blackwater isn’t a good choice.

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