Are you overly cautious in marketing your practice? Of course, you don't want to do anything unethical, but in your cautiousness, you may be undermining your ability to compete in the marketplace.
None of the ethics codes of the major mental health professions prohibit marketing and advertising. However, they all do require adherence to basic principles, including benefit to the public, avoidance of harm and exploitation, and accurate representation of the professional's training and competence.
From these and other aspects of one's code of ethics, some clinicians make erroneous assumptions about what is and what is not ethical when it comes to marketing. Here are a few myths and misassumptions, along with clarifications.
Links to the codes of ethics for the four major mental health professions are listed at the end.
1. Myth: It is unethical to "toot my own horn" about my practice.
Fact: None of the ethics codes of the major mental health professions discourages self-promotion per se. What is unethical is making false or misleading claims about your training, expertise or experience. Thus, for example, if you have a doctorate in a field other than the profession in which you are licensed - say, a PhD in history - and you also have an MSW and are licensed as a clinical social worker, you cannot ethically represent yourself as "Dr. …" when referring to your mental health work.
That said, self-promotion is ethical when advertising your services or introducing yourself to new referral sources. You can also ethically emphasize your expertise through writing and via presentations to community groups and professional groups.
2. Myth: It is unethical to publish my fees on my website or in my brochure.
Fact: It is not unethical to publish your fee. However, certain aspects of fees may be subject to laws in your jurisdiction. For example, in the US, discussing fees with colleagues and competitors could give the impression of price fixing, which is illegal. For this reason, our professional listservs, forums and social media have strict rules banning any discussion of fees other than Medicare fees, which are set by the government.
3. Myth: It is unethical to ask for testimonials from non-clients
Fact: It is unethical to request a testimonial or positive review from current or former individual clients. That's because they may agree in order to please you, even when it is not in their best interest.
For instance, by posting a testimonial, they are publicly revealing that they have had mental health treatment. "No big deal," they might think. However, they may not have considered ways that such information could affect how they are perceived by future employers, dating partners, and others who Google their name. This is just one of the reasons that it is ethically prudent to avoid asking current or past clients for testimonials or ratings.
On the other hand, it is ethically permissible to ask for testimonials from people who are not clients or patients: referral sources, colleagues, or readers of your books and other materials. Thus, it does not violate ethics if you ask a physician or attorney who has received positive feedback about you, to write a supportive blurb. Similarly, it does not violate ethics if you request a written or video testimonial from a colleague who is familiar with your work.
4. Myth: It is unethical to approach businesses and organizations, offering my services
Fact: It is unethical to solicit individuals, due to their potential vulnerability to undue influence.
However, for organizations and corporations, it is not unethical for you to solicit their business. In fact, direct solicitation may be the only way that they can learn about you and how you can help them. As long as you do not misrepresent your skills, credentials or fees, you are in the clear, ethically speaking.
5. Myth: If an individual asks if I know of a mental health professional who can help them, it is unethical for me to offer my services, even though I have expertise in treating that type of problem.
Fact: There is no general ethical prohibition against offering your services in response to a request. And contrary to popular belief, there is no ethical requirement to provide names of three professionals.
However, in some cases, where your objectivity could be compromised - such as when the request is made by someone you know well, (e.g., family member or close friend) it would be in their best interest (and therefore ethical on your part) to be referred to someone who is less apt to be unintentionally influenced by personal relationship biases. The same applies to people with whom you have a professional relationship, such as referral sources or your hairdresser.
On the other hand, if an audience member at one of your presentations comes up to you or contacts you later about getting a referral, you can ethically offer your own services, provided that you have the required competency, and that your objectivity would not be compromised by a social or working relationship with that person.
Read Your Professional Ethics Code!
When in doubt, check your professional code of ethics. You won't find comprehensive dos and don'ts for specific aspects of marketing. But by understanding the rationale and aspirations of your ethics code, you can become more confident in your marketing efforts. For additional personal guidance in making ethical marketing decisions, talk with the risk management consultant affiliated with your malpractice insurer.
Links to ethics codes: