Ethics Thought Leadership

Intellectual Property Issues and RFPs: Protecting Your Work

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Each September, PRSA recognizes Ethics Month as a way to bring increased attention to the core foundation of the communications profession. Please visit for updates on programming.

A PR firm puts together a presentation for a client who is soliciting Request for Proposals (RFPs). The firm does a good job, and its work is impressive. The client appears pleased with the proposal, and based on their reactions in the pitch it appears that the firm may win the account.

After a few weeks, however, the firm finds out the disappointing news. The potential client chose a competitor. They decided to take the campaign in a different direction.

Thus is the nature of public relations. It’s a tough business.

However, months later the firm sees portions of its RFP in the potential client’s new campaign. The same work. The same ideas. No compensation.

The use of others’ work is a perennial problem with RFPs, and in any conversation about public relations and intellectual property the issue is bound to come up. What should the firm do? How is this legal? How is this ethical?

Combating this issue of protecting one’s work comes down to what is in the details of the presentation. Broad confidentiality agreements in which PR practitioners and firms give intellectual property rights to the soliciting client create scenarios where ideas and work from unselected RFPs are co-opted with little to no consequences.

To avoid these situations, PR practitioners working on RFPs can protect their intellectual property by explicitly identifying what content is owned by the PR firm. Remember, copyright is any work fixed in a tangible medium, and that providing ownership identification assists in establishing the rightful owner of a copyrighted work in an infringement suit.

Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and RFP contracts that outline ownership of content should be carefully read and negotiated. Consulting an attorney to review these documents is a good idea to ensure that expensive IP is not given away during a pitch.

As professionals, PR practitioners are bound by ethics, and the PRSA Code of Ethics directly prohibits the theft of another’s work. Being on the receiving end of ideas and work that stem from an unsuccessful pitch is an ethical issue found in PRSA Code Provisions of Conduct including Competition, Disclosure of Information and Enhancing the Profession.

Following best practices including disclosure, permissions, notice and explicit contractual language provide PR practitioners with better ethically informed decisions when working with potential client and RFPs.

IP and RFPs continue to be a major issue for PR practitioners in all aspects of communication practice. This is an issue the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) addresses in its Ethical Standards Advisory 14 titled “Expropriation of the Intellectual Property of Others.”  Understanding the parameters of IP protects practitioners’ work and respects the work of our colleagues in the PR profession.

Cayce Myers, Ph.D., LL.M., J.D., APR, is a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, PRSA Representative to the Universal Accreditation Board, and past president of PRSA Blue Ridge Chapter.

[Illustration credit: hogehoge511]

About the author

Cayce Myers, Ph.D., J.D., APR

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