Confidentiality And Agency Life

As you may know, I’ve recently begun a new job at a new agency (Edelman, for the record).

In doing so, I moved to an agency that represents competitors of past clients.

While I’ve taken this in my stride, several people have now raised questions about confidentiality with me – enough that I think it’s worth addressing at a broader level.

As an ‘agency guy’ you’re privy to all sorts of plans, strategies and future-focused documents that your clients trust you to keep confidential. Other companies would love to get their hands on those documents, or even to just learn the general plans of their competition. A lot is riding on the integrity of everyone who comes into contact with those plans.

At the same time, it’s completely normal for people who move to a new job to find themselves at a company either competing with their previous employer, or servicing a competitor. As I’ve written before, PR is a small world, and the odds are reasonable that the situation could arise.

I completely understand how any company could be anxious about someone leaving when they’ve seen to high-level plans – whether it’s a company employee or an agency team member. However, I’d make several points to those who are concerned:

  • Companies typically ask new employees to sign confidentiality agreements. Those agreements usually stand beyond the end of an employee’s work at those companies.
  • Companies trust the integrity of people to handle their plans while they work for them. That trust shouldn’t disappear as soon as a person moves on.
  • Your primary asset in the public relations business is your integrity and reputation. Lose that, and you’ve got little left.

For me, this last point is critical.

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t unscrupulous people out there who violate the trust of their ex-employers (hell, some people do it while they still work for companies). For me, though, I’ll categorically state that my reputation is worth way more to me than one or two quick wins.

In a business where one indiscretion can lost you a reputation that took a decade to build, your career will benefit much more if you play the long-term game and respect the confidentiality of your clients long after you cease working with them.

Have you encountered confidentiality questions when you’ve changed jobs? How have you addressed them?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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  • As an HR guy confidentiality is key to what I do and I think it’s important to realize that, even if you have some pressure to divulge how a former employer is doing or what’s going on, the minute you breach that trust, your current employer will wonder what you’ll do when you eventually leave them. This could leave them feeling uncomfortable about sharing confidential information with you and keep you out of the loop.

    • That’s a great point, Tom – I can imagine that breaching confidentiality for your current employer would risk creating a vicious cycle for your reputation.

    • Antonel Neculai

      I wonder if there are any companies out there who would be more interested in the knowledge you bear (and thus, if “spilled out” it would help them leverage against the competitors of their customer). The more they’d get from you, the happier the agency would make their customer (by scoring points against that competitor who’s secrets you know). The agency would probably offer you incentives to “spill it out”, right? Once you did that, your career there would be finished, of course, but the agency would not care less! They made their bucks.. You can’t sue ’cause you’re at fault, too… “It’s a jungle out there, my son!” (Dustin Hoffman – “Hero”)

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  • Dave – Kudos to you for taking the time to write a heartfelt and sincere post about an issue that undoubtedly has caused you some angst recently (and congratulations, too, on the new job!). It’s great seeing someone of your high stature and respect within the profession being so open, honest and resolute with your beliefs that above all else, our reputations in this business are what matter, even more so than the success of our own companies or employers. Really appreciated this post.

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  • My entire life is an NDA and always has been. If we travel this earth long enough, we are faced with those moments to go for the quick win – as you put it – and I have never done that. It’s not worth it. Sure it is tempted, we’re human beings, but we meet each other on the staircase our entire careers. And if you have a client or employer who asks for confidential information you may have of a competitor, that points to their lack of integrity not yours which may give you pause on the future of that relationship.

    • I agree. On the flip side, I’ve been impressed that my new colleagues have already been explicitly avoiding getting into conversations that would put me in an awkward position. That in itself is a relationship booster for me.

      • I had no doubt, Dave. You are a class act and so is everyone at Edelman.

        Done, done and well done. km

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  • When working on the client/corporate side, another internal battle to fight to keep your lips sealed is direct & indirect internal brand competition. Confidentiality seems to be a struggle across the board: vertically and horizontally.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more re. integrity and reputation – it often requires a level of sacrifice and a long term vision, but nothing replaces a good reputation – and nothing is harder to rebuild. Clients at both Thornley-Fallis AND Edelman have been/are lucky to have you, Fleet – enjoy the transition and the new challenges. I look forward to battling it out with you in a pitch at some point down the road. It’s always nice to come up against a worthy opponent .. and take him down! 😉

    Claws retracting – all the best to you, Dave.

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  • Dave,

    Thanks for the post! As a newbie entering the agency life in a week (who just signed her confidentiality agreement) I’ve suddenly become very aware that being part of an agency is the opportunity to be a part of some great projects and work with some amazing minds, but I’ve also become aware that the responsibility on the part of the agency member to keep what they know in confidence is the most important. Loose lips sink ships and destroy personal brands.

    A question for you as a seasoned professional: How do you keep the knowledge you have of your competitors from encroaching on your current projects? You may not speak to your co workers directly about what you know, but when working for a client, has what you may know about their competition ever caused you to step back and re-evaluate what you are doing for a current client?

    • Great question, Stephanie. There’s a fine line here – industry experience is good, but taking advantage confidential knowledge clearly isn’t.

      Personally, I try to recuse myself from conversations where I may be put in that position. It’s just too easy to subconsciously factor-in the plans you know about, so the best approach is just to remove the possibility.

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  • So many industries have that same issue… whether it’s tech, PR, law… there’s always the “oh good, now, do we need to worry about what a departing employee is or isn’t using against us?” issue. But in the long run? Integrity can’t be bought – or sold.
    Awesome post Dave. I’d be surprised if anyone specifically questioned your integrity, but it’s an issue that no doubt concerns us all at some point or another.

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  • Drnicolson

    If a current employee discloses highly confidential information during an interview with a competitor. Then decides to stay with his current employer instead of joining the competitor Am I complicit if I do not bring that information to my executives.

  • Absolutely. That kind of confidentiality violation should be reported whether they stay or not.