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Posted: Jul 29, 2004 09:00


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Who to Believe?
By: Lon Woodbury

How can any professional help wounded children learn how to make positive decisions when that professional does not have a firm grasp of ethical practices in their marketing? This question comes to mind as I track some of the increasingly common marketing practices on the Internet.

The main purpose of professionals in the network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs focused on private parent-choice facilities is to help children learn how to make better decisions that help them to become mature adults. This includes values such as learning how to be responsible for their actions, fairness, accepting accountability, being open and honest in their dealings with others, and a grasp of cause and effect, which teaches the child the importance of deferring immediate gratification for a greater future good.

These values are necessary for a person to be a responsible adult, and these basics are included in every organizational ethics statement I have seen. However, there seems to be an increasing number of people coming into this network of private parent-choice Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs that seem to have the attitude that Ethics are fine, but business is business. By business, I mean not only private for-profit practices and programs, but private not-for-profit, governmental agencies and quasi-governmental activities. To some of these people, it appears that any method to increase their cash flow or reputation is fair game. Whatever works to bring in clients is considered clever and desirable, and they will not allow ethical considerations to become an obstacle. These are the people who make the question, “Who to Believe?” more difficult to answer.

In the past, I have written articles on the unscrupulous marketing practices used by some on the Internet, including the topic of scum-ware, which is where a professional’s advertisement would pop-up on the screen after a browser has unknowingly downloaded it and then visits a competitors’ website. Also common is where a marketer buys search engine keywords that are personal and/or program names without permission. Some claim other people’s writings as their own, over-promise results and give desperate parents the guarantee they want most to hear – “We will fix your kid.” In working with a population of at-risk children, there are so many variables that any kind of guarantee is questionable, especially if that guarantee is merely a marketing tool to draw in desperate parents, and really doesn’t mean much.

These marketing practices also often keep the real mechanics of how they are paid a secret and depend mostly on a raw appeal to the emotions of the parents. To “follow the money” always provides very helpful insights, but it is difficult to do in many cases. In my view, it would be very difficult for a professional to teach children one set of values, while ignoring those values in operating their practice or program. Eventually those clever bottom-line marketing practices will intrude into the program’s operation. From this perspective, to maintain program effectiveness, it is very important to maintain a firm grasp on ethics, especially in marketing.

Whether ethical behavior or clever marketing practices dominate the private parent-choice network depends largely on the attitudes of those working in the field. If that attitude is to do whatever it takes to get more clients or a higher enrollment, then unscrupulous, slick and clever marketing practices will become dominant, and their ethics will be based only on what marketing techniques are most productive financially.

However, the attitude of parents is even more important. If they choose to work with professionals who have a publicly stated ethics policy and are open and honest about their business practices, then those ethical practices will be a productive business approach. But, if parents assume the practitioner who spends the most on advertising is the best to work with, and/or overlooks little ethical lapses because the person seems so sincere on the phone, then any marketing technique will be used, except the fairness and restraint demanded by most ethical standards. Parents need to ask serious questions about the professional’s experience and credentials, remind themselves that free advice is often only worth what you pay for it, and question the slick and clever advertising some professionals are using to acquire new clients. If they do not, then the parent that is willing to cut corners ultimately undermines attempts at ethical business practices, which would be bad for children, parents and the profession.

Ethics are a statement of what is considered right and what is considered wrong in a professional practice. Any therapist, educator, or program that is licensed or accredited has agreed to some ethical statement of acceptable practices, and this applies to any professional who is a member of a professional organization. Not only has the professional received the approval of his/her colleagues through licensing, certification or membership, but they are also subject to disciplinary consequences for breaking those ethical standards. A professional with these affiliations is less likely to take advantage of a parent. However, a professional without those affiliations creates a greater “buyer beware” situation for the parent; and the parent does not have the protection of these ethical standards and has no organized body of professionals to appeal to if the advice or service turns bad.

In checking out professionals, parents also have to make sure the accreditation or certification body claimed by a professional really exists and is legitimate. For example, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) is a real organization that takes its ethical standards very seriously and has disciplined members for infractions. Though enforcement of these standards of course is not perfect, a serious effort does exist, and it is enough to get the attention of all its members. Unfortunately, some referring agencies on the Internet are piggybacking on the reputation of the IECA by claiming they are an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC). This sounds very official, but in reality, it is just a generic term with capital letters. The IEC is not an organization, and there are no ethical standards or disciplinary procedures in place to guide those using that title. This designation of IEC is simply a marketing technique.

Written ethical standards in the Emotional Growth/Therapeutic school and program field include two purposes. One is the attempt to protect parents from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous practitioners. Another purpose is to support fair competition among professionals. If unscrupulous marketing techniques can be eliminated, then professional success is more likely to be achieved by superior service rather than clever and slick marketing. In both these ways, success in establishing ethical standards benefits parents, children and ethical professionals.

Many of the parents who call me are totally confused about how to make the right placement choice for their child. They are not only confused by multiple and often conflicting diagnosis, they are also confused by the programs they are considering because each seems to feel it is the best placement for their child. Meanwhile, the referring professionals and self appointed “watch dog” groups who believe they have the inside track to what the truth is, confuse parents further by making different and conflicting recommendations. This is why the question from parents often really is, “Who to Believe?”

In reality, few people are as good at evaluating other people as they think they are. Everyone has been fooled at some time, and usually more than once! To evaluate a person’s trustworthiness by talking with them directly is subjective at best, especially if that contact is limited to the phone. This includes professionals working in programs, therapists and referral sources.

The most reliable way for a parent to decide who to believe and evaluate a professional’s trustworthiness, is to obtain independent third party opinions, and investigate their record of accomplishment and experience. An important part of this is to use the information available from the licensing, certification and accreditation agencies and organizations to evaluate a professional. However, this information is of course dependent on the legitimacy and standards of those agencies or organizations. Testimonials from people who have used a service can be very helpful so long as a parent can directly contact the person making a supportive statement. Testimonials used in a service’s marketing materials with no contact information are worthless because you have no idea if they are independent, friends of the service, or fiction.

Probably one of the easiest things parents can do independently is to check out all professional services by talking directly to people who have used the service. Of course, some of these people will have personal biases and agendas, but it often provides a lot of valuable insight, and a sense of how experienced the professional is. This, along with checking into the claimed affiliations, will give you a fair idea of whether the service is a quality professional service, or mostly marketing.

Ignoring the signs of slick marketing can result in receiving less than top quality professional service for your child, and will encourage an “Anything goes” type of marketing. Neither will be good for your child, nor the standards of this industry.

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