Just say no?

Can we stay true to our ethics during a pandemic? Rebecca Dowman explores this conundrum and how she’s faced up to it in these strange times.

The biggest professional buzz I’ve got this lockdown was not winning or completing a big piece of work – it was turning one down.

The chance to write an oil and gas company annual report could have been the answer to a prayer. I’d been idle for weeks, was marketing furiously to anyone I had, and hadn’t, met and – being a dividend-paid company owner – was not receiving a Covid-19 government bailout. The bottom of the war chest was clearly visible.

When the email offer arrived, for the briefest nanosecond I whooped. But within moments I knew I couldn’t do it. My personal principles and company brand could not work side by side with a sector that was maiming the planet. I had to sacrifice the money, the relationship with the agency chief who’d sent it my way, and the end to the anxiety of having no work/money.

Giving up a Titanic lifeboat seat

But despite all that, I felt GREAT. In looking at the chance to ditch my principles, I realised how strongly I held them; in considering a job I’d be ashamed to put on my website, I remembered my pride in the company. It was far from giving up a seat in the Titanic lifeboat but it made me feel heroic.

And to keep the good vibes coming, the potential client didn’t respond to my ‘Thanks but no thanks’ email with a snippy response; he said he admired my ethical stance and ‘liked’ the principles vs profit piece I then posted on LinkedIn.

The experience made me wonder what prompts other writers to turn down work – and if they ever regret it. So I caught up with the trio behind the recent ‘Working through Tough Times’ online sessions, 26’s training team: Elise Valmorbida, Heather Atchison and Fiona Thompson.

Making for happiness

Alongside times when they had limited capacity, each cited ethics as the prime deal breaker. Elise says: “I know I could not give my best to a cause I abhorred. This has meant less money, and sometimes more difficulty.

“It’s much tougher in tough times, no question. But one choice leads to another and in the end I seem to work with people I like, giving my best to projects that make for happiness.”

Heather cites nightmare clients and dodgy corporate positioning as being two of her key personal blocks. She says: “Recently the two factors coincided, so it was a much easier decision to make.

“I had worked with a particular client for two years and it had been quite painful, from both a personal and professional perspective. It was a large corporate client and a sizeable project. Turning it down may have deprived me of a good chunk of this year’s income stream. But I knew in my heart of hearts it was the right decision.”

Heather agrees that saying no to work can do more good than harm to a writer’s reputation. “I put my heart and soul into my words. Showing that you believe you’re worth more than an impossible client sends out a clear message about what you stand for as a writer and consultant.”

Say yes to the best

Fiona takes a proactive stance on the no/yes dilemma. She encourages writers to target the sectors they want to work in, so that – rather than spending time contemplating whether they should accept offers from the bad guys – they are fully occupied on projects from the good ones.

She urges writers not to hold back from contacting potential clients. “Don’t assume that because there’s a pandemic people won’t want or need writers. Be as proactive as you can, in as many ways as you can, to let people know what you are doing, and what you are capable of, in ways that might fit their needs.

“Reach out to as many people as you can in the sectors that make your heart beat faster.”

– Rebecca Dowman

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