Sunday, May 22

Knowing Your Client

The Washington Post recently ran an article about a freelance writer that was paid $7,500 by an agricultural department to write articles touting federal conservation programs and place them in outdoors magazines, according to agency records and interviews. The records show Dave Smith was contracted to craft five stories for $1,875 each, and also was to "contact and work magazine editors to place the articles in targeted publications."

The articles, which targeted hunting and fishing magazines, described the "benefits of NRCS Farm Bill programs to wildlife habitat and the environment," according to agency procurement documents obtained by the Washington Post. Smith said he was paid between $7,500 and $7,800 on the contract, but the total could have been as much as $9,375.

For those who don't know, there was no real foul on the part of the agency or Smith. According to Smith, he told the magazine editors of his government contract, and received no payment from the publications. From that point, it was up to the editors of the publication to decide whether or not to run the stories and how to identify Smith. (In one article, they chose to identify him as a freelance writer who works as a biologist for the agency.) Or, they could have treated the articles as feature releases, mining them for background material so an in-house or publication-contracted writer could rewrite it or develop a new approach.

While I respect the Washington Post's position of implied impropriety, neither the agency nor Smith did anything wrong. Had Smith pitched the stories as a freelance writer seeking an assignment with a publication without disclosing his relationship with the agency, and received payment from the magazines, then that would have been an ethical breach. In this case, no such ethical lapse occurred.

As a writing services company that sometimes wears both hats, writing for publications and writing on behalf of a company, there is one very simple method to ensure we maintain objective: we ask ourselves ''who is the client?'' If the company is the client, we write and send the stories out as feature releases (generally lighter and longer than a new release) and accept neither byline nor payment from the targeted publication. When we accept an assignment from a publication, we never accept payment from any sources nor grant those sources any editorial oversight.

It's about that simple. Identify your client and write accordingly. Regardless of that, always write the truth.


Rich on 5/26/05, 1:21 PM said...

Thanks for your comment.

I also wanted to add that a freelance writer can remain objective regardless of who writes the check. However, it takes a strong sense of ethics to it.


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