Ethics Issue or Illegal?

A CEO of a startup company has contracted with me to produce a couple of query letters that I will submit to two business magazines, with the goal of writing two separate profile articles on him. If the queries are accepted by the publications, my agreement with the CEO is that he will pay me to then write the articles. However, the magazines will also pay me as the writer. Is this double action considered unethical or, worse, illegal?

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I'm a senior-level writer/editor with more than 25 years experience, 18 of which were spent with National Geographic magazine. I consider myself largely a feature writer/editor, and I'm looking for connections to people who know the business.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Issue or Illegal?”

  1. I would say the only unethical thing would be taking pay from both parties if you don’t let the publication know you’re contracted by the CEO. If they’re okay with both paying you, there’s nothing wrong with it because you’re being transparent. I’d be very careful about querying as an unbiased freelancer when you have a business relationship with the person or company you’re profiling. Even if it didn’t count as fraud, it could severely hurt your professional reputation.

    That said, in these situations, I only take payment from the business client. I write the pitch letter on behalf of the client (the letter goes from them to the publication, not from me). It’s offered as free content. A) That increases their chances of accepting the profile or feature. B) The publication knows up front that the client has a business interest in the submission, and they can provide any relevant guidelines. And C) it helps the client build their professional contacts (important if it’s an industry publication) which in turn can lead to future features, which they’ll hire you to write.

    By the time you’re paid for the query / pitch letter and the article itself, you often make more with the client paying you than you would with the publication paying you. And many trades take both freelance submissions and free content from industry insiders.

  2. I guess the main issue is to inform both the client and the publisher that you will be paid by each party. Otherwise, their probable negative response concerned with this situation can have some impact on your reputation.

  3. I can add my own two cents here, as I experienced that kind of dilemma only months ago.

    The following was my situation:

    A startup contacted me after having read (and appreciated) one article I contributed to a social media blog. They wanted me to write an article that would shed a good, honest light on their business, which wasn’t difficult, because the startup relied upon ethical values. However, they wanted me to publish the article on that same blog where they previously read my other piece.

    What I did:

    – I told the startup owner that I would need to ask the blog owner first

    – I contacted the owner of the blog I contribute to, explained the situation and asked them not to pay me as a contributor for this article; to treat it as a “special guest” article

    – The blog owner wanted to read a draft, so I sent one; it got a approved

    – The article was scheduled for publication and the startup paid me $100

    🙂 Happy ending.

    As long as you’re honest with both the parties, there’s nothing wrong about it. Just make sure both clients get it that you won’t proceed further until both of them approve.

  4. It sounds like you handled it in a great way Luana. 🙂 You were hired by a company to write a profile piece, so that’s what you were paid for. The rest was just their distribution of that piece — for free. They just had you connect them with the publication because they were already in your network. Everyone knew what was going on. You were paid for your work. It was labeled as something other than your typical contribution to the site. It turned out being above-board, and ultimately that’s what matters.



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