What do you do when you fire a client who has prepaid you? Lisa Gerber

Joining me on this week’s episode is Lisa Gerber, the CEO of Big Leap Creative and host of Breaking Trail podcast. She discusses a number of important issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

My work has evolved quite a bit since I started Big Leap Creative in 2004. I work primarily with purpose-driven individuals and teams, primarily nonprofits, who want to be better at storytelling and communications in order to make a better connection with the communities that they serve. It’s been really rewarding and wonderful work. I happened into it about five years ago when I started working with my first nonprofit, and I got into this whole thing without any intention. I admire people who just know what they wanted to do when they were younger. I didn’t.

I started Big Leap Creative in 2004 when I was working as a director of marketing at a ski resort. I had been there for about three years and at the end of my third ski season, I just thought, oh my gosh, if I have to do another season pass sale or another holiday lodging campaign, I just cannot repackage this or redo this creatively in any way, shape, or form. I am so done.

I took a six-week sabbatical to figure out what I might want to do. And my favorite thing of all of the work that I had done to date in the spectrum of marketing was the PR and communications. So, that’s what I decided I wanted to do.

I returned to my employer six weeks later with a proposal that I was going to leave and do PR and communications, and they agreed to be my first client. That was enough to get me moving and get more business. That work has evolved since 2004. It went from strictly PR and media relations to digital marketing and social media, to what I’m doing right now.

Thinking about that work as it’s evolved, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I feel very fortunate that my most difficult ethical challenge is not as large scale as some other of your guests.

I was working with a family-run foundation, and I was actually really, really excited to sign on this client. And we were doing quite a bit of work. We were a few months into the work, and I was on vacation in Iceland and I was in the middle of nowhere on a rural road. And I pulled up my email to get a hotel confirmation and that’s when I saw an email from a person I had never heard of from a Gmail account, requesting an accounting of the work that we had done for the foundation to date, what we had been hired to do, and all this other information. It set off all these alarms and red flags, and kind of got my heart rate going. Who is this person from this Gmail that is contacting me about this?

I contacted the executive director and she didn’t respond, so then I texted her, all from this rural spot in Iceland, and she told me that she had been let go, and she was in tears. Anyway, long story short, this person ended up being a 20-something niece of this family-run foundation, and she’s taking everything over and it was just a nightmare. I really wanted to keep this work. But there were a series of red flags that occurred. When we went to do the brand presentation to them, we were giving them a whole brand package and we had done months of research and conversations with the previous executive director, and then we presented this incredible work.

She responded to it with, “That won’t look good on a race car.” That was completely out of left field. There was never any discussion of a race car. I don’t even know what she was talking about. How do you pick brands based on how it’s going to look on something specifically?

We had a series of just really not good interactions in the way they were handling this transformation, so I decided to let this client go.

The ethical piece comes in where they had obviously paid a significant amount on the retainer in advance. Now I revisited the contract. What do I need to do in this situation? Do I need to return money to them? How does this all work? That was where I really struggled because I felt like I do not legally have to give them any money back, but I felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do. I let the client go, and I had to go back and do a bunch of calculations. I didn’t want to burn bridges with this client. Who knows? Maybe they’ll figure out that this 20-something year old niece is a nutjob and they bring back a qualified ED.

So, in the end I calculated an amount of money that I was going to refund to this client, and I fired them, and sent them a check back. I’d be really curious what some of your listeners, even what you think of that, because airtight contracts are a tough thing, to come by. That was the decision that I made, and I felt good about doing it. And so, there it is, in all those years, the largest ethical challenge I’ve ever had to face.

Going back to one of the things I tell my students always, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And I think you made the right call as an outsider here because they paid you in advance for services rendered and you didn’t render all the services. It’s not like they fired you, so I think you did the thing that will have long-term.

I spoke to Hasan Zuberi, he’s the head of the PR Council in Pakistan, really fascinating man. He had a similar situation. He also insisted on giving it back even though they told him not to.

If you do the work, you should be paid for it. If you’re not doing the work, and you’re the one particularly deciding to part ways, that’s where I think one of the key things is there. If they had said somebody else came in and fired you and didn’t give you the notice and stuff like that, I think you’re looking at a very different situation.

Beyond your interesting experience with foundations, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges today and tomorrow?

I see the biggest challenge being earning trust. You don’t really know that this has changed over the decades, but it just seems amplified right now because people either trust blindly or they completely mistrust. And so, as communicators, how are we earning that trust? It comes down to finding the truth, finding accuracy, and dissecting what is true and what isn’t true, which is so hard right now.

So how do you go about earning trust?

By doing the right thing and through accurate storytelling. I’m just starting some work with a refugee organization; Their Story is Our Story. They tell the story of refugees and the impetus behind the establishment of this organization in 2015, when the Syrians were escaping to Germany, the way the media was covering that. There were two women there at these reception areas for the refugees and they were talking to the refugees and getting their stories, and then comparing that to what they saw in the news, the news just sparked this fear and mistrust of refugees, and that wasn’t reconciling with what they were seeing in the actual on the ground.

It comes back to how do you earn trust? I think it comes to going straight to the source. I’m at a loss sometimes when I’m trying to dissect information say about vaccines, like how do I know this PhD person versus this PhD person?

We have been working with the Washington State Department of Health for the past year and a half plus, I can tell you vaccines are good, they’ve been proven, they’re trusted, I encourage everybody to please go get some, but that’s my own personal opinion. If you are in doubt, talk to your doctor.

With nonprofits, the problem is that the people who are working hard to put out the accurate, trustworthy information, even less resources, like you said, than the people who are putting out misinformation. And so, it’s just, it’s hard to dissect, it’s hard to find the truth right now.

When you’re talking to your clients, are they receptive, do they understand that? Or are you counseling them on how to deal with this decline of trust?

They are very receptive. And it’s amazing whenever I speak to a nonprofit leader and I tell them that I can help them with effective storytelling, the immediate reaction is, oh, we need to do that, we need to be better at that. So, there’s no making the case for storytelling – being authentic and coming from the heart and speaking in a more genuine manner.

And what I counsel them is we just have to get into specifics. I feel like too often people fall into very generic terms, they fall back onto data and statistics alone. You need data and statistics, but when you just throw numbers out there, it’s not as compelling and it’s not helping individuals get a clear understanding. When we break it down into individual stories that break that down, then you start to build that trust and understanding. The other item I counsel my clients on is to address the potential pushbacks and objections in a proactive manner. Just get ahead of those tough topics. And when you do that, it’s quite remarkable how that can build trust with your communities.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Just comes from my mom and just doing the right thing. I was just raised to be honest. I have never stolen anything. Doing the right thing, maybe that sounds simplistic because sometimes, and I’m sure a lot of people listening have complex situations that they are confronted with, but it always just comes down to what’s the right thing to do. When I returned that money to that client, I wasn’t legally bound to, but it just felt like the right thing.

I think that’s great advice. And it’s, kind of if you go back through history, it’s one of the four cornerstone theories of ethics. It’s lasted the test of time.

Tell me about the Breaking Trail podcast.

Breaking Trail is a podcast which has been on a summer break and we’re getting ready to start back up in this fall. And I have conversations with outdoor-active individuals, entrepreneurs who have redefined their idea of success and how they live and work and have overcome some great challenge. They are breaking trail. They’re not just following the path. People can find that at I also have a book coming out in November, I just set the date to November 10th, a book called From So What to So Funded: How Nonprofits Use Storytelling to Create Impact and Change The World. It will be available on Amazon, on my website, And they’ll find a tab that says Book, and they’ll be able to pre-order if anyone is interested in connecting with me there.

What’s it about?

It is a lot about what I just talked about. It’s about the journey that audiences go through with a nonprofit and how to strategically ask the right questions to tell the right stories. It’s about telling the right story, not about telling a story well. I think we all know inherently how to tell good stories. I think that might raise some eyebrows, but when you know what the right story to tell for the right time and the right objective, then that’s the key.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here:

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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