Bait and switch with a twist: The Sequel

Slide1I was very pleased to see the PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards held a discussion to address the issue I raised in a previous Repman blog entitled: 'Bait and switch with a twist.'

The blog concerned a new twist on the large agency world's propensity to bait-and-switch team members in order to win a piece of business. The wrinkle in this particular case was the agency's failure to tell the unsuspecting client that each and every team member was a freelancer! The client, frustrated by her inability to reach team members, finally called the large agency's HQs and was told “…no one by those names worked at the firm.” The client was appalled, and so was I.

Unfortunately, though, PRSA board member Emmanuel Tchividjian didn't share my concerns over the moral and ethical implications of passing off hired guns as full-time employees. Speaking on behalf of the ethics board, he said, “It is up to the agency to make sure that the freelancer's skills and experience are adequate for the job to be done. What matters is that promises made to the client be kept and that the quality of the work performed is consistent with the reputation of the agency.” Say what?

Either Mr. Tchividjian didn't read my blog or worse, if he did, didn't grasp the implications of what was written. This wasn't a matter of an agency not disclosing it had hired a freelancer or two to supplement their full-time team. This was a deliberate lie made to a prospect. The large agency presented a complete team of freelancers but passed them off as full-time employees. I don't care how competent they were, the freelancers were hired guns. And, the prospective client should have been told that fact during the pitch process. Period. 

I'm at a complete loss as to why the PRSA doesn't see this as a fundamental breach in ethical business behavior. How can we, as an industry, present ourselves as the moral compass of business & industry when some of us not only practice sleazy sales tactics, but have those tactics blessed by our industry's governing body? It's a scandal within a scandal and I, for one, am very disappointed with the PRSA.

Rogue agencies will come and go. But, we'll never advance professional standards when our industry's top trade association turns a blind eye to misrepresentation and fraudulent practices. It makes each and every one of us look bad.

7 thoughts on “Bait and switch with a twist: The Sequel

  1. Thanks for the note. Sorry, but I’ve promised the prospective client not to name names. She did like the idea of the blog since, as a few people indicated after the original was posted, this particular type of bait and switch is happening elsewhere. It really is sleazy, and clients need to be vigilant when selecting their next firm.

  2. Steve -
    “I’m at a complete loss as to why the PRSA doesn’t see this as a fundamental breach in ethical business behavior.” You really shouldn’t be at a loss, PRSA doesn’t understand what ethics are from the get-go and only pays lip service to the concept. It really is that simple.
    Richard Newman, APR, Fellow PRSA

  3. Steve:
    I truly appreciate your position on this issue and the opportunity to engage in a discussion about this.
    On the freelancer issue this is what I wrote to the BEPS board:
    “I have a more nuanced view on the “bait and switch freelancers” issue.
    I do not see anything wrong for an agency to hire one or more freelancers for work on a client business and I do not think that the agency is ethically obligated to reveal to the client the terms of the contractual agreement between the agency and a full-time employee or a part time or full time freelancer. It is up to the agency to make sure that the freelancer’s skills and experience are adequate for the job to be done. What matters is that promises made to the client be kept and that the quality of the work performed is consistent with the reputation of the agency.”
    However I should have added that it is always wrong to lie or be deceptive to a client or for that matter, to anyone else. It seems to me that in the example that you brought up, there was deception involved. Deception can very rarely be justified.
    Best.
    Emmanuel

  4. Thanks so much for the response, Emmanuel. I agree that, in the case I cited, deception was involved. That’s why I was a little surprised by your response. I think every agency in the world has discrete relationships with freelancers that are, in no way, necessary to reveal to a client. We, for example, will hire an extra media relations specialist or two in a major crunch time (and don’t feel compelled to alert the client). We only alert a client to the addition of a freelance member if, and when, she needs to have direct client contact (i.e. for researching, say, a white paper). The bait and switch with a twist tactic in my example involved passing off an entire team of freelancers as full-time employees. I’m amazed the prospective client hasn’t initiated some sort of legal action against the PR firm in question. I’d consider fraud.