What to do when you encounter unethical marketing

Unethical Marketing

by Kelly Higdon and Miranda Palmer

Your character and ethics are the foundation of your business. As a therapist, we take ethics very seriously. Why? Ethics exist to provide a framework on how we operate and to ensure no harm to our clients. It also is a standard by which we measure the baseline practices of clinicians and defines a basic quality of a "good" therapist." Ethics as a therapist are quite clear and are outlined by our licensing boards and governing organizations. 

Therapists that own businesses have to apply ethics to their marketing.

Therapists, as business owners also apply their ethics to how they run their business and how they do marketing. My code of ethics say I cannot make false promises while advertising - such as - a guarantee to eliminate symptoms of anxiety in 6 sessions or less.

However, if I had worked with a 100 clients with anxiety, tracked their symptoms, and 90% reported an elimination of anxiety symptoms within 12 sessions- I could say just that- my results. I would also need to clarify that even with those results, there are no guarantees, and every situation is different! 

Avoiding Marketing Based on Fear

I have seen therapists avoid marketing for fear of being unethical or confused over what is and isn't okay. I have seen therapists throw caution to the wind and say all sorts of things hoping it will get the phone ringing. I have also seen therapists do an amazing job at quality ethical marketing. 

What is ethical marketing?

Ethical marketing is marketing that reflects your values and standards and does not cause harm. It provides value to the person, whether or not they choose to work with you. It helps them make the best decision for themselves. It is not motivated by fear or anxiety and instead comes from a place of abundance and desire to help. It contributes to the therapy market in a positive way.

Ethical marketing integrates the code of ethics of the professional organizations that you belong to, as well as integrate your own personal ethical code. For example, my personal code of ethic is to be a light to my community, providing support, hope, encouragement, and serve my community. For me, this requires me to be active in my community, and social media and blogging are integral to ensuring I help my community as broadly as I can. 

But what happens when we see someone doing business unethically. What is there to be done about it?

Speak up where it matters most. If you feel someone is being unethical, go to the person first. If they aren’t safe and that doesn’t feel doable, then report it to the governing board. But save your breathe when it comes to gossip and slander. 

Always be a part of the solution 

If you don’t place the information in the appropriate hands, you are part of the problem, not the solution.  Ouch! Did that sting? Spreading information without making the person with the issue aware does not help. It’s like when you walk about of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe and everyone is gawking and talking about it but you don’t know. How are they helping by gawking? And that kind soul that whispers, “hey, check your shoes.” And while embarrassed, you feel grateful someone told you.  Those people whispering are part of the issue not the solution. Don’t be that person.

Beyond just not being a part of the solution, pointing out other's flaws seldom makes you shine. Be your best self, focus on what you do like-instead of what you don't. Shout from the rooftops about the things that you DO believe in.  

Is it really unethical? Does it not match your personal ethics? Or, is it something that rubs you the wrong way? 

You also want to check yourself before you wreck yourself. Take a moment and figure out if this is about you or about them. Ethics in our professional organizations are extremely clear in some areas. However, the way that people interpret those ethics, or handle issues that aren't clarified in the code of ethics gets gray.

There are also separate codes of ethics for different professions within the mental health field, and even by geographical locations within the state. Certain chapters of organizations have developed additional ethical guidelines beyond what the broader organization has developed. 

There are times where I (Kelly) have taken a stand, and revoked membership to an organization that didn’t handle some issues appropriately. It wasn’t that they were professionally unethical, we just had a difference in our personal ethics. It was a gray area.

What if their marketing just rubs me the wrong way?

We all get triggered. Often it is by our own insecurity. Just check and make sure this is about the other person, caring about them, and the people that they work. In running a business, I have seen people with strong reactions to how people choose to market their practices.

Let’s face it great marketing takes vulnerability which also opens you up to criticism. But that criticism, more often than not is about the critic. You may secretly wish you could do what the other person is doing, or you might be projecting your own frustrations about your business onto the other.

Take the Lead. 

Above all else, you want to look in the mirror and be proud of the work you do as an ethical therapist and business owner. Stay above board and put your message out there to reach the people that need to hear from you most. 


Miranda Palmer

I have successfully built a cash pay psychotherapy practice from scratch on a shoestring budget. I have also failed a licensed exam by 1 point (only to have the licensing board send me a later months later saying I passed), started an online study group to ease my own isolation and have now reached thousands of therapists across the country, helped other therapists market their psychotherapy practices, and helped awesome business owners move from close to closing their doors, to being profitable in less than 6 weeks. I've failed at launching online programs. I've had wild success at launching online programs. I've made mistakes in private practice I've taught others how to avoid my mistakes. You can do this. You were called to this work. Now- go do it! Find some help or inspiration as you need it- but do the work!