Marketing and Promotion Guidelines
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We believe schools and programs have a right – perhaps even an obligation – to market and promote themselves.  Marketing done right and well benefits the young people we work for.  Without quality marketing, it would be difficult if not impossible learn what we consultants and parents choosing treatment programs need to know. Good marketing is essential to how we learn which schools and programs could meet the needs of a young person with whom we work.  Good marketing informs and builds trust.

At the outset, we want to point out that Guidelines for Marketing and Promotion on the one hand and Guidelines for Referral Sources  on the other are really two sides of the same coin.  The next three paragraphs of both articles are almost identical for that reason.  

In initially preparing those two Guidelines Articles, we found ourselves constantly writing on one topic while writing in the opposite article.  We have sorted that out to some degree, but the issues are not entirely separable.  So we urge the reader of this article to read the article on Guidelines for Referral Sources as well in order to get a full view if the topic.   

Marketing corruption and referral corruption stand and fall together.  Corrupt marketing practices are of limited impact when professional referral sources are not corruptible.  We believe that there are both marketing and professional referral sources that act only in the client’s interest and do so as objectively as possible.  We also believe that there are people of good will in both marketing and referral who intend to have very clean, operations who participate in activity that we believe clouds judgment in the long run.  We hope to promote a re-examination of some of those practices. 

Although two sides of the same coin, marketing and referral that is truly in the client interest differ on one essential point:  Marketing by its nature promotes a particular school or program or group of schools or programs; Professional referral sources appropriately have no interest in any particular school or treatment center and are only interested in meeting the needs of their clients.  Marketing disguised as professional referral is, in our opinion, corrupt by nature, even if not illegal. 

Marketing should have two goals.  It should inform and it should build relationships.  How should it inform? From contact with the marketing materials of a school or program, it should be clear where the program is located, who is in charge, who are principal staff, their financial structure and stability, who they serve well, who they don't serve well, how they approach the process of change, credentials,  and how they differ from other programs.  By "marketing materials" we mean printed materials, web sites, advertising, publicity of all forms and verbal contact with people connected to the program.  Too often marketing materials from one program are so hyped but lacking in specifics that they could be used on behalf of most direct competitors.  The information should be accurate and easy to understand.

In addition, every residential school or program should consistently be clear that  they do not "cure" any young person of his or her problems if they are behavioral, emotional, or psychiatric.  In those situations the "end game" is always about what happens when the young person is back home, off to college, or in a conventional boarding school.  Residential intervention can be a powerful and appropriate tool in a larger chain of events including family therapy and the young person continuing to build on their residential gains when living outside a structured environment.  We cannot consider a school  or program to be credible when they attempt to leave the impression (even if they don't state it directly) that they can admit a child, adolescent, or young adult with behavioral, emotional, or psychological problems and send him or her home "cured" after a period of time.  More is available on this topic in our Guidelines on Case Management, Transition Services, and Guidelines on Family Participation.

The best that any residential school or program can do with a child, adolescent or young adult with behavioral, emotional, or psychiatric problems is to prepare him or her and his or her family to continue to make progress o those issues when back home or otherwise outside the structure of the school or program.  Residential schools and programs do not "fix" or "cure." They prepare for effective and productive progress in accepting life outside of specials structure, something that can happen only outside the special structure.  Credibility with us and consistency with our guidelines require that programs be very clear about this. 

We are very concerned that too much of marketing depend upon parents' desperation for a clean, neat fix.  They hope to send a son or daughter to treatment and bring him or her back home "fixed" just as they might hope their car would be fixed after a day in the repair shop.  Too many schools and programs do not overtly make extravagant claims on this point but still leave parents with a wrong impression of what is possible in order to secure an admission and associated revenue.  Such school and program behavior is outside our guidelines. 

If relationship building seems to be a stretch in ethical marketing, we remind the reader that referral (from our point of view) and placement (from a family point of view) depend upon trust and relationships can be a foundation for trust.  Some will challenge us on what we say about the appropriateness of relationship in ethical marketing, and we anticipate printing some of those challenges so the reader can see all sides here.  But we think it is an appropriate part of marketing – within limits. When Tom Croke worked in marketing, he was constantly reminded that institutions don't refer to institutions but people refer to people.  Marketing is about relationships just as good treatment and quality change is about relationships.

We at FamilyLightsm will refer to the school or program where we have a trusting relationship and good communication in preference to a school or program we believe to be of equal quality, where we lack those relationships.  The problem in the relationship area is to be able to set a boundary between marketing activities that are legitimate efforts to create these kinds of trusting, communicative relationships, vs. those that risk creating a conflict of interest situation.   

Toward that end, we welcome informative web sites telephone contact points, and printed literature that accurately and completely describes a school or program (Information).  We welcome access to a person we can get to know who will answer our questions, build a trusting relationship and be our advocate within the school or program, with the authority and the diligence to hold others accountable for what we (and our client) has been promised.  This is what we mean by building trust.

A number of common marketing issues that may fall outside of our guidelines are noted below.

Web Directories 

One problem in marketing has nothing to do with referrals.  That is the problem of websites turning up on the Internet that purport to be neutral directories, but guide people only to specific schools and programs that finance the web site, whether they are appropriate or not, but may carry the impression that this is a directory with neutral referrals.  We understand that schools that have in the past been under the umbrella designations of “Teen Help” and “WWASP” frequently used this line of marketing.  But this practice is not unique to them.   Prior to March 2008, Aspen Education was doing it.  Some of the “headhunter” marketers run similar websites to draw attention to themselves. 

As far as we know, every website available with information about schools and programs in the private sector except this one are either websites set up to attack schools and program in the private sector in general or are based in some way upon marketing and advertising of programs.  This does not mean they are all negative.  Lon Woodbury’s “Struggling Teens” AKA “Woodbury Reports” website is financially supported by advertising and maintains integrity.  What it is, is transparent. We don’t expect that website to be as assertively critical as this.  We don’t always agree with what we read there. However, it contains extensive valuable information that you will not find anywhere else.  It is important to understand what motivated a person or organization to create a web site in order to know what kind of credibility to give it. 

So on that point, we remind our readers of our purpose in creating this website.  We want to improve the standards of the industry and get beneficial information to parents and others concerned about young people. But we would not be putting the energy into this that we are if it did not also have promise of promoting FamilyLightsm and eventually providing a revenue stream from people paying to view certain portions of the web site.

For any school, program, to derive enrollments, directly or indirectly from websites that do not disclose who is funding them and for what purpose, is contrary to our guidelines. 

Paid “Headhunters” and Contract Marketers

The other problem in marketing that misleads parents and other consumers without directly involving referring professionals is paid “headhunters.”  These are people who may present themselves (usually) as neutral sources of information, but actually are getting paid by the program that receives the enrollment (or may be deceptive in some other ways).  These people may present themselves as your psychiatrist or therapist, another parent “just trying to be helpful,” an employee assistance counselor, your local “Council on Alcoholism,” your local union representative, a foundation to “help” parents, and even some educational consultants (although none who engage in this practice are IECA members, so far as we know). 

Example 1:  Clinicians in practice (psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and others may be receiving payment for every person (“per head”, hence the name “headhunters”) they refer certain schools and programs.  We believe practice is illegal in some venues and prohibited as part of the ethics code in some professional organizations.  But the practice continues. 

Example 2:  Mr. and Mrs. Smith have heard about your concerns regarding your teenage son.  They approach you with sympathy telling you how concerned they are and how they have been through the same thing in their family. Then they mention they school their son is attending and how it has worked miracles for them and would do so for your son. What they don’t mention is that they are getting a month of free tuition for their son for every enrollment they can generate, and they have been to a training program sponsored by their son’s school teaching them how to sell another family on this school while appearing to be just another concerned parent.

There are many variations on this, and this is just the part-time version.  There are also full time variations.

Historically, Employee Assistance professionals were known to have strong financial incentives from treatment programs, especially from alcoholism treatment programs.  Companies sponsoring Employee Assistance Programs have weeded out the more overt examples of this, but this is an area rife with conflict of interest problems.  Direct cash payments are less common than they once were but we remain skeptical regarding the question of concealed conflict of interest.   Many Employee Assistance programs are now operated by managed care entities and channel people to services contracted with them, which are not always the best services. In those cases, the real goals of the Employee Assistance programs is to reduce employer costs, not provide the best service, and in many cases the people administering those programs are totally ignorant of self-pay services for families.  However, the very best of Employee Assistance professionals do the same job as a special need Educational Consultant.

One   “foundation” promotes itself as being simply parents helping other parents.  However court documents that we will be appending to this article in the near future suggest that this may be a profit making organization.  In addition to appealing to parents as a simple service of parents helping parents, this organization appears to make several referrals to a school or program then ask for a “donation.” If the donation is forthcoming and of sufficient size, there will be more referrals. If not the “foundation” moves on to refer to more lucrative points of referral and revenue. 

Other people operate headhunter businesses.  These range from “no fee” educational consultants who get paid by the program they refer to but totally transparent about the arrangements, to “contract marketers” -- organizations that channel clients to specific programs by a wide variety of tactics (some fully legitimate, perhaps some deceptive).  We are frankly less concerned about these operations where the parents know upfront that the person they are dealing with is financially dependent upon the organization to which they refer. However the better schools and programs do not generally use such referral sources.  The problem with any of these is that they don’t involve objective professional advice. A problem with the latter version of this is that the head hunter may “represent” several different programs. He or she may have a different phone line for each.  When the phone for Acme rehab school rings, he may present himself as director of admission at Acme.  A second phone rings for Ajax Wilderness program and he presents himself as Executive Director at Ajax.  In reality he is simply a sales person for each.  The additional problem that arises here is that this person makes a sale by building  a relationship with the callers (parents) and leads them to believe he has some authority in the school or program and will be the parents’ advocate if needed – when in reality he is “outa here” the moment the enrollment is completed.  It is possible that some in this kind of business do not operate that way.  From 1990 to 1993 our consultant, Tom Croke, attempted to operate such a business but where he represented accurately his relationship to the organizations represented and continued to be the advocate for the people he referred. He found it difficult at that time to earn a comfortable living operating transparently and actually working for the best interests of the families.  

Although many disagree with us, FamilyLightsm does not want to put all such operations outside our guidelines so long as there is total transparency. By total transparency, we mean that parents dealing with “contract marketers” know exactly what the relationship is between the contract marketer and the facility which enrolls the student/client and that the contract marketers fully and accurately disclose that. That includes being clear about what is promised regarding “service after the sale.”  If a contract marketer simply fulfills the legitimate purposes of marketing and is transparent about what is promised and what is not, we have no objection.  We are frankly more concerned about concealed conflict of interest and other practices that are highly deceptive.  We do caution parents who are new to dealing with this business to obtain some kind of reliable neutral advice before proceeding, noting that the people under discussion here, if legitimate at all, are legitimately not objective and have a sales agenda.

Our guidelines call for transparency, first and foremost.  Outright promotion of a particular facility is acceptable when the person doing the promotion is fully disclosing that the person’s loyalty rests with the school or facility to which they refer.

Our guidelines are (subject to extensive revision to reconcile with above):  

1.   All promotion should be fully accurate.  That means not just literally truthful but with all wording and symbols and context communicated so that prospective clients and referral sources would consistently gain an accurate understanding. 

2.  Building relationships must not be confused with rewarding referrals.  No item of value or perceived value should be provided to a referral source in exchange for referrals.  “Thank you” gifts fall into this category and are contrary to our guidelines.

3. Individuals receiving incentives for referral in any form should be identified as part of the marketing staff of the school or program providing the incentive. 

4. Referrals from programs to potential sources of referral should be based solely on expectation of quality work. Those referral sources should not be guided by receiving referrals from the program, school, consultant or other entity to which they make referrals.

Feedback is invited. We will  publish selected feedback.  Email

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last updated January 4, 2009

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