The ethical importance of knowing when to say “No” – Natasha Koifman

Joining me on this week’s episode is Natasha Koifman, President of NKPR. She is recognized one of Canada’s most powerful and innovative women in Public Relations. She discusses a number of important ethics issues including:

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career

I started my own agency, NKPR, 20 years ago. We work with lifestyle brands, and we’ve helped establish some of the biggest brands in the market. I also started an angel investment company, and we do a lot of work in the real estate space. There’s a building named after me, called Natasha the Residences. We work in Canada and the US. I’m excited to be in this industry, still, after 20 years. Where a lot of people, I think, burn out, I actually have this incredible enthusiasm for it, and I think it’s because I get to work on so many different types of things, and at the same time be philanthropic, because we have a big philanthropic part of our agency. I feel very, very fortunate.

Thinking over your 20 years and all the different brands you’ve worked with, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The biggest one is saying no. When I started my agency 20 years ago, I started it because I worked at an advertising agency, and I had to promote everything that got put on my desk. Anything they worked on, I had to promote. I felt that if you want to really get the results that you need to get for your clients, you have to be passionate about what you’re promoting, you have to feel a connection to it. And so, when I left that agency, I thought, I’m going to start my own thing, and honestly when I started, I thought I was going to be more of a freelancer than actually start a company, it just turned into a company despite me.

I wanted to be able to pick and choose what I worked on and who I worked with. I really stuck to that. From my perspective, it was very much around partnering with brands and clients that you are aligned with from a value standpoint.

The biggest ethical challenge for me sometimes is you need to say no. Trust your gut to say no to the accounts that don’t quite feel right. If you don’t share in the same values with the person that’s leading the company, take that as a red flag and as a trigger. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the industry is when you feel that feeling, when you’re not aligned, say no, because that’s not going to change.

Thinking about it though, you have the client coming to you, you’ve got that queasiness in your gut, you’re not sure it’s right but they’re offering you a lot of money. That means you’re going to keep your employees and have a chance to grow. How do you rationalize and how do you deal with turning down X hundred thousand, X million dollars?

Here’s what I’ve learned. When you say no, literally at the snap of your fingers, the right client comes along. Because as you know, in our industry, what happens is if you say yes to one, you might not have the resources to do the next one, because certainly when you look at times these days, it’s not like you’re hiring someone at the drop of a hat. So, you need to really kind of look at, if you have a certain amount of resources from a staffing perspective, what do you want to work on? In my experience is when I say no to something that doesn’t feel right, usually the right opportunity comes up. I’m always encouraged by that because, with all honesty, it has never not worked out that way. I don’t want it to start now, but I think that’s the lesson.

There have been times where I have said yes despite having that feeling. We have a very strong brand. When you’re in business for a long time your brand gets stronger, you have a good reputation, and all sorts of clients want to work with you.

There was this one client where they came to us because they were doing crisis management. They came to us because they wanted us to represent their brand because that would give them a bit of shine. But I remember the conversation specifically with the leader of that one company, the president of the company, and we were giving him counsel, and I knew that if he didn’t follow this direction, we would be in trouble. Just from a crisis perspective, you knew that the house of cards would fall.

And he specifically said to me, he said, “Look, I don’t pay you to give me advice. I pay you to do what I’m telling you to do.” The next day, I resigned from the business because I said, “No, that’s not how I work.” Because we are known for our counsel, we are known for being honest, we are known for our integrity, and I don’t want to be aligned with a company that’s doing the opposite of what we’re suggesting because the house of cards will fall, and we’re associated with that. I’ve had that happen a couple of times and, lesson learned.

You have the autonomy to make that decision. What about the more junior staff who may not be as comfortable. Do you have any advice for some of those professionals on how to say no to their boss when they’re putting them in an uncomfortable situation?

I had this conversation with one of my team members just a few days ago, where I had said to her, “Just know that I support you, when you’re speaking to a client and you’re pushing back because it’s necessary to push back because we’re either over our hours or we’ve delivered on what we said we’re going to deliver from a KPI perspective and clients are always demanding more, just know that I support you to push back, and I want you to have the confidence to be able to do that.”

With the junior team, you have to have those honest conversations so that you can give them the confidence they need to be able to push back in those situations. From an internal standpoint, I always think transparency and honesty are super important. Have that honest conversation with your superiors about, “I don’t want to work on this account,” or “I’m not aligned with this particular account,” or “I can’t find the angle.”

I always think, in PR, you can find the angle. That being said, one of the reasons I’m so careful about who we work with and what we work on is because retention and recruitment is so important. You want to make sure that what you’re bringing to the team to work on, they are excited about. So they can find that angle, so that they’re not coming to you saying, “I don’t want to work on this,” because if they say they don’t want to work on it, that’s a problem. So that’s why we’re quite careful about what we take on.

What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for the industry, for today and tomorrow?

One of the biggest challenges is paid media versus earned. Everything feels paid these days. I think about what’s PR’s role in that.  I think a big part is messaging, and really thinking about, if the direction that we’re going in is paid, and content is king, PR plays such an integral role in making sure that that content is authentic to the brand, as opposed to it feeling like, here’s an ad, because anybody can place that.

When we’re looking at paid versus earned, 20 years ago, PR was very much around earned media. Now, it’s more about what are the collaborations that we can create so that we can utilize the media to be able to do that storytelling? It means we’re working overtime to really be able to come up with those stories and create that content that is interesting. There’s that fine line between earned and paid, and mostly everything is paid, so I think that’s one of the biggest dilemmas is PR companies trying to find their way and navigate their way through these interesting times.

How do you advise clients when it comes to disclosure? Because that’s one of the blurring lines.

Transparency is king. Be transparent. You see a lot of the publications that sometimes they are transparent, sometimes they’re not transparent.

It’s up to the PR company and the client to come up with programs that are actually interesting. All the media outlet is doing is giving us an opportunity to have more eyeballs. There’s nothing embarrassing about placing an ad to be able to create more visibility.

Being transparent is important because most readers don’t even realize what’s paid and what’s earned.

Yes, Fred Cook at USC Annenberg did a study and they found out that in a few years, 55% of people won’t be able to distinguish between paid and earned.

But also think about where people are receiving their information. A lot of people are receiving their information on Twitter. They’re getting their news on social media, so does it matter?


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

Trust your gut. It never lets you down, and it’s where we started our conversation. Pick and choose who you work with. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it means it’s not right.

Also, don’t work with assholes. And work with people and companies that are aligned with your values. You know that old adage of treat people the way you want to be treated? Why would you work with people that don’t treat you the way you would treat others or the way you want to be treated?

Work with people that you’re excited about working with, that are kind, that are loyal, that have integrity. Your only commodity in life is time, so how are you going to spend it? When you think about the PR space, that’s all we sell is time. Don’t you want to make sure that you’re working on things, and working with people that are aligned with your own sensibility and your own sense of values?

So many of our team members have been with me for a long time. We have two VPs that have been with me for 13 years, 10 years, account managers, eight years, seven years, five years. I work with people that I’m excited to see every day. I take on the projects that they will be excited about so they’re learning, so they’re growing, so they feel a sense of accomplishment.

When you’re running a company, certainly in PR or marketing, you have to think about that. It can’t be about money, because to me, money is the kind of thing where you spend it, you blow it, you give it away, there’s lots of that.

Let the work drive you and then the rest falls into place.


Listen to 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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