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Conflict of Interest

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Every now and then I come across a client who, for whatever reason, is under the impression that previous work I did for a different client may cause a conflict of interest. Current situation -- a magazine editor thinks my writing about Topic A for Client A would conflict with my writing Topic B for his magazine (which rarely publishes anything having to do with Topic A). He's handling it by putting a disclaimer on my byline. First time that's happened to me. Do I mind? Not really. It's actually free advertising. He's just told his readers that I write for companies like theirs. 🙂

But there are also client prospects who turned their backs because in the past (think five years prior), I'd written for one of the companies they deemed competitors. In one case, the woman asked me in a crowded convention hall if I'd worked for any of her competitors. I hesitated (really thinking before I answered), told her no (because it was the truth), then watched the skepticism spread across her face. I'm probably lucky not to have worked with someone who doesn't trust my word, but it kind of pissed me off to think she'd assume I'm lying. I pride myself in being truthful with clients -- sometimes painfully so (for them and for me).

Still, people are concerned about conflict of interest, sometimes overly so, in my opinion. I've never been a writer who couldn't separate my journalistic side from my marketing side. To me, I'm loyal to the one in front of me. They get my full attention and all of my effort. Never yet have I had to write anything that directly competed with any other company -- never.

But it does bring up an interesting point about conflict of interest and full disclosure. I'm the type who sends my client prospects a list of previous clients (where I can -- not breaking any NDA terms). They can see from the start if there's a potential conflict. If they think there's one, we can discuss it.

How do you handle conflicts of interest or client concerns about it?

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5 thoughts on “Conflict of Interest”

  1. I can understand the issue in the first scenario you mentioned, but only if the article you wrote specifically mentioned your former client. Writing about someone who’s paid you in the past in an editorial sense should always be disclosed. If the client wasn’t mentioned in the article, then it sounds like the editor was just being paranoid.

    When it comes to working for competitors, I can’t recall having any problems. I don’t offer exclusivity for good reason. If a client wants that, they can offer a full-time salary plus benefits (which I’d turn down anyway). When you’re a specialist you’ll often work with competing clients. That’s the nature of the beast if they want the best in their industry or project type. And I’d imagine in your case with the insurance industry that’s even more important because of the legal and regulatory issues that can come into play.

    If anything, I’ve had clients hire me because I wrote for competitors. I used to write for several big web directories’ blogs, take on their press releases, write their copy, create linkbait pieces, write e-books they used for incentives, write their email newsletters, etc. I didn’t look to specialize in that area. But I built a reputation working for one, which led to another, which led to another. They changed owners, and I’d be asked to stay on while the former owner would also hire me to work for their newer ones. On one, I’ve worked with all three owners, being the most consistent thing on the site behind the scenes. It just happened that way. They all knew I worked for similar sites. For the most part they knew each other. And not once did they question me having a conflict of interest for working for several of them at the same time. They all had different content strategies they felt I could help them with, and they never asked me for inside information about the others. So there was no real conflict.

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  2. I haven’t had a problem with it. There was an issue with one client who wanted to tie me into a non-compete. I explained that since I was writing on similar topics for multiple people it wouldn’t make sense. Eventually, he saw the light.

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  3. Jenn, that’s always been my attitude. As freelancers, we’re going to work for competitors at one point or another. That’s just the way it is. In my industry in particular, editors and I have often joked that we all tend to feed off each other in one sense or another. It can’t be helped (nor should it from a freelance writing perspective). Like you, I find that past experience part of why I get the next job, but there are those few who, oddly, don’t want it. I remember one guy I had a conversation with decide not to go with me because (and he was an editor, which made this even weirder) I’d written for some of the companies in the industry and I wasn’t strictly a journalist.

    Ha! Good luck finding a freelancer who hasn’t done both in that industry. Even some of the editors I know have done both sides of it (journalism and corporate comm).

    Sharon, those non-competes are a waste of everyone’s time. I know one freelancer, though, who made hay with it. The magazine said they expected him to write for only their publication in that industry. He agreed for a price — a five-figure annual price. He made 20 grand off them and they got their exclusivity.

    Sadly, that magazine is still operating under that ridiculous stipulation. I know because one of the editors asked me to do some work for her last year and I had to turn her down for that very reason.

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  4. With a lot of freelance writing work, you have no involvement with the client’s business beyond providing them with an input and then receiving payment for it. Here I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect non-competition from the writer, anymore than a restaurateur could expect non-competition from their meat purveyor.

    When you do sales copywriting or develop marketing materials, the client takes you into their confidence and you get a real insider’s view of the business – their strengths, their weaknesses, their overall strategy, how they’re positioning themselves against their competitors and so forth. If you do this work for two direct competitors, that stinks. A lot of clients will have you sign non-disclosure and non-compete agreements, which is completely reasonable.

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  5. If you specializing in writing sales copy for a certain industry (not uncommon), a non-compete would still be unreasonable imo. If they want you exclusively, they should be taking on the costs and responsibilities of hiring you as an employee instead of an independent contractor. In that case, a non-disclosure is enough because it means you’re not allowed to share any internal knowledge or use it in helping a competitor. There’s no need for both.

    I do like the butcher analogy though. It’s funny how in so many other industries, buyers would never think to ask for the limitations they try to impose on freelance writers.

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