“I’m a consultant who provides a rather unusual service for large corporate clients. I have been invited to be interviewed on a local television morning news program, but it’s very hard for me to describe what I do without giving examples of projects I’ve done for specific companies. Can I get into legal trouble if I mention these companies by name?”
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS! Any consulting practice that draws attention from the news media, even your local cable news channel, is definitely doing something right with its marketing.
Just mentioning that you have worked for Company A or Company B in the past, without more detail, shouldn’t get you into too much legal trouble (as long as you did indeed work for them). But once you say something on television or radio, you can’t “unsay” it, so it’s best to be careful and do some homework before you go on the air.
First, take a look at your consulting contracts with the companies you’ve worked for and reread the “confidentiality” section to make sure you are allowed to mention the company by name. While confidentiality agreements usually prohibit you from disclosing your client’s “confidential or proprietary information,” some contracts go further and treat even the fact that you are working for the company as “confidential information” you can’t talk about. Large companies that hire consultants are usually pretty sticky when it comes to enforcing their confidentiality agreements, so be careful here. If the contract language is not 100% clear, have it reviewed by an attorney before your TV appearance.
When negotiating your consulting contracts, you should insist on a clause that specifically permits you to use the client’s name as a reference and otherwise “for general marketing and promotional purposes.” If there’s no clause in the contract prohibiting you from using your client’s name to promote your services, it should be OK to do so.
Next, see if your consulting contract contains an “assignment of inventions” or “assignment of rights” clause. If your consulting duties involved the creation of a report, artwork, design, PowerPoint presentation or other “intellectual property” (such as a new way of doing things that gives your client an advantage over the competition), your client might view that as “work made for hire,” which they own once they’ve paid you for it. If such a clause exists, you can still mention the company by name but you probably should not discuss details of any specific project you worked on.
Next, depending on the type of services you provide, make sure there are no professional rules of ethics that prohibit you from disclosing a client’s identity or the work you did for them. For example, state ethics rules absolutely forbid lawyers from disclosing their clients’ confidential information (one of many reasons we are such dull company at cocktail parties). If you are subject to these rules and must talk about a specific project, do not mention the client by name, use “hypothetical” language, (“In situations where X and Y occur, I find the best advice is Z.”) and consider changing a few unimportant facts so that the client’s identity is protected.
Finally, be careful what you say during the interview itself. Anything you say about the company must be 100% true, accurate and complete, or else you may be exposed to a slander suit. Avoid talking about individual employees of the company you worked for unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you must, then be sure to:
–Put them in the most positive light possible.
–Avoid discussing private matters that the individuals would be embarrassed to make public.
–Not use names, job titles or physical descriptions that would enable your viewers to identify the people you are talking about.
When in doubt, call your former client and ask if it would be OK to mention them during the interview. Many companies will jump at the chance to get some free publicity and will be only too happy to give you guidance on what you can and cannot say about them during the interview. Of course, once they give you permission, you know they will be watching your interview and perhaps even taping it for their next management meeting (or to show their legal counsel). One mistake, slip of the tongue or ill-thought-out statement and your career (at least with that client) may be toast.
One more thing: Make sure you get a recording or DVD of the interview and get a release from the TV station so you can put a video clip on your website (maybe on YouTube as well if it’s really good) and make copies to show prospective clients. There is no better promotional tool for a consultant than a terrific TV interview. Work your tail off to make it as perfect as you possibly can.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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