Too often we assume that ethics is all about obeying the rules that begin with “You must not …” If that were all there is to living ethically, then as long as we were not violating one of those rules, whatever we were doing would be ethical.
Ethics in the Real World
A few weeks ago a client of mine saw one of the articles I’d ghost-written on their behalf in my online portfolio. I hadn’t really asked their permission to put up the article, and while my client didn’t ask me to remove it — they weren’t completely OK with it either. It got me thinking a lot about ethics, so this blog is the first in a series of three articles I’m going to write about ethics for copywriters (and freelance writers generally). In this post I’ll be discussing client confidentiality, and more specifically:-
- the sensitive nature of the client data you access as a freelancer
- how non-disclosure agreements work
- keeping client documents secure
- projects that represent a conflict of interest
- putting ethics and client confidentiality at the foundation of your customer service
Building trust with your clients is actually the basis of great customer service and key to creating lasting business relationships.
Working with clients
Writers (and copywriters especially) require access to client data if we want to write great product descriptions, company profiles, web content, brochures and blog posts. Freelance copywriters are like an extended member of the sales team, and we can’t write a persuasive sales email if we don’t know anything about what we are selling.
In order to help them sell their products, clients give us access to sales reports, product specifications, strategic and marketing plans, manufacturing notes and feasibility studies. At the same time we ask a lot of questions and learn about their operating procedures and unique selling points (USPs).
While many clients require a written guarantee up front that you won’t be sharing that information or using it inappropriately, many don’t — particularly smaller clients and micro-business owners. But with, or without a confidentiality clause, you still have a duty of care and an ethical responsibility to secure client data and not compromise the integrity of the information they share with you.
The example (of my client) in the opening paragraph clearly demonstrates that you need to be clear with your clients about what is important to them. Ask, because it will be different for each organisation. My client had concerns their competitors might try to ‘poach’ their freelancers, but other organisations with patented technologies will probably want their manufacturing notes kept private. And because (in 2018 and beyond) news travels very fast, many clients don’t want their feature stories and news ‘scooped’ before it’s been officially released to the public.
Larger businesses and corporate clients usually ask freelance writers to sign a non-disclosure agreement(NDA) before commencing a writing project. NDAs are legally binding and usually include:-
- a clear definition and scope of the confidential information that needs to be kept secure.
- a disclaimer that the freelancer will not use client information for any purpose other than in connection with the project.
- an agreement not to share client data with anyone else. So if you use sub-contractors for research, editing and proofreading you should disclose that at the beginning of the job.
- an outline of who owns the written work at the end of the job and if the freelancer can use it in any way. For example, in some ghostwriting assignments, the client will allow you to put the written piece in your writing portfolio, but you have no right to author royalties or profits from book sales.
- how long the agreement lasts. In many circumstances the NDA never expires.
If you breach an NDA you can be sued for damages, especially if the client can prove they suffered a financial loss because of the information you leaked. You could also face criminal charges. Alternately, you may be required to present client information to the authorities if you receive a court order.
Keeping client documents secure is an important responsibility of freelance writers and this is often specified in the NDA. Some clients require their documents returned (or deleted) when the job finishes, but all clients will expect you to protect their data as if it were your own. Clients often give me their login details to member websites and social media channels, in the case of one-off projects these details should be deleted once the project has been finalised.
You should always follow instructions from your client as many digital documents (like Australian Standards or peer reviewed journal papers) are licensed to the client’s organisation (eg, they can be read online but may not be downloaded or printed to hard copy). Not following their requests can compromise the relationship your client has with other organisations.
While working on a project you should make sure that your computer’s hard drive and cloud storage is secured with strong passwords. How about if your laptop was lost or stolen, could the integrity of your client’s data be compromised? How are you storing client login and password details to various websites and social media channels?
And while backups aren’t necessarily a part of client confidentiality, make sure the project you are working on is regularly backed up. It would be really embarrassing to miss a deadline (or have to ask your client to send all the resource files again) because your computer crashed and the whole project was lost.
Conflict of Interest Projects
I don’t take on projects or new clients if I believe a conflict of interest exists. Let me explain this one with an example. So I have a regular client who is a property developer who works with landowners in a specific regional area. I’ve been writing him personal profiles, blog posts and web content, and in the writing have come to learn quite a bit about property development. But he’s also shared his personal approaches, things he does differently to other developers, and specific projects he’s worked on in the region.
Recently an associate in my professional network offered me a referral to write an eBook and white papers for another property developer working in exactly the same regional area. Pitching the same clients for the same service. Would you take the referral? I did not. Not only did I feel this would be a conflict of interest, but it also would weaken my relationship with my existing client.
I don’t have any NDA or exclusion clauses in place with my client, but this situation is a little bit like what Peter Singer describes in the opening quote. Ethics isn’t about obeying the rules, it’s about doing what’s right. And ultimately what is right will help you create better relationships with your clients and lead to a lot more freelance writing contracts in the long term.
Great client relationships
In any business great client relationships are the key to growth and long term success. And it takes more than just being an excellent writer to have a successful writing business. Honouring client confidentiality, keeping documents secure, and backing up writing projects properly all contribute to building trust and establishing a long term working relationship with your writing clients.
This is part 1 of a 3 part series on ethics for copywriters and freelancers. In part 2, I will be talking about snake oil (misleading your readers, misrepresenting products and duplicating content). In part 3, I will be discussing intellectual property, ghostwriting assignments and project ownership.
If this article was useful to you, or if you have an comments from your own writing experience please leave a comment below and start a conversation. I’m always keen to connect with other writers and freelancers.
© 2018 Melinda J. Irvine