The deeper I get into the forensic/investigative industry, the more clients I sign and the more prospects ask me about doing business, the question has started to come up: “What about your relationship with…?”
I’ve written before about how tightly packed certain markets are. Forensics investigators as a whole value community, but within that group, vendors for mobile device forensics, e-discovery and other sub-fields are quite competitive. (At times, I visualize sharpened bared teeth. But anyway.)
By now most people in the industry know that I represent the High Technology Crime Investigation Association. As part of that work (especially in the months leading up to its conference), I have promoted directly competing firms, sometimes while I was contracted with one or two. I also contract with three mobile forensics vendors.
How do I manage without violating contractual agreements, or ethical boundaries?
Transparency without disclosure
Without disclosing specific needs or intended strategies (e.g. “ABC wants to focus on e-discovery…”) I inform current clients of new contracts. Sometimes I do this even in negotiation stages, depending on how I feel about the situation I’m hearing and the role I’m expected to work in. I also inform new prospects of existing contracts, right at the start, in case it’s a deal-breaker for them.
I don’t sign contracts I don’t feel comfortable with. If something is a clear conflict — two direct competitors in the exact same space (think AccessData/Guidance, or Cellebrite/MSAB) I don’t play them off against each other. That’s just too much to ask.
But in less clear instances, where I feel there’s more flexibility and I do sign, I am diligent about keeping the work separate.
For instance, among my mobile forensics clients, one has me working on a campaign basis. Their PR team is firmly established, and I am working with the messaging direction they provide, rather than helping them determine and direct messaging. Another client opted to have me work on product promotion rather than the training branch of its business, because I was already working with another client on its own training.
In all three cases, differentiation is key. The clients had already mapped out the way they wanted to differentiate themselves, possibly the most important thing they could do in such a tight market. Why… and how are the differing messages not a conflict for me?
The community standard
It comes back to “community.” Each vendor has something to bring to the table. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses; within the company, each product has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Moreover, each forensic examiner has his/her preferences when it comes to tools, based on the tool interface, ease of use, and a dozen other intangible factors. And because the mobile forensics industry still has yet to produce a tool that can acquire all the data from every digital device with every operating system on the planet, most examiners use multiple tools — including directly competing products if they can afford it.
In that regard, what I do shouldn’t be much different from what a vendor-neutral reseller does: find what works best for the customer. (This is perhaps most in play when I’m representing HTCIA, when what I do on their clock is to benefit the membership community as a whole. And no, I don’t charge clients for promoting their company on HTCIA’s behalf.)
In my case, it’s a matter of finding the communication that will:
- Best highlight the answers to customer questions, at whatever stage in the buying or ownership process. Use cases, for instance, are clear examples of showing one product’s strength without coming at another product’s expense.
- Align with client values, experiences and strengths in a way that matches media needs. Depending on whether the client has an investigative, legal, hacking, government or private background (or some combination thereof), I pitch stories that draw on that experience. Subject matter experts don’t come from cookie cutters, and the possibilities for good stories are endless as a result. I haven’t pitched the same story for two competing clients, and I doubt I ever will.
- Start and continue conversations according to community values on social networking sites. Forensic examiners value truth above all else, so they like healthy debates that challenge one another and keep standards high. Marketing messages don’t work with them, and the best vendors respect that.
Remember: I was a journalist first, and it’s this sense of impartiality that I bring to my PR work. I was writing for the investigative community long before I started in PR, and those are the people — my readers and sources — I feel the most sense of responsibility to: contracts and paychecks come and go, but the community remains the same.
Their needs are what I’m responding to when I counsel clients and write content. The point is not to water down the message, but rather, to raise the bar on clients: to bring their strengths and values out from behind the veil of marketing-speak like “innovative” and “revolutionary” and to show the customer how the clients will help solve their work problems.
At that point, keeping client strategies separate pretty much works the same way as keeping my own personal biases out of client work. Clients pay me to incorporate their values into the content I craft for them, so as long as they clearly communicate those values and goals to me, I’m able to come up with strategies that work for everyone — and that don’t conflict.