Marketing Rules for Accountants

Jeremy Hessing-Lewis

A couple of months ago, I blogged a quick refresher on BC’s Legal Marketing Rules. Most self-regulating professions have similar sets of rules and accountants are no exception.

I’ve always considered accountants to be lawyers with math skills. Both professions maintain very conservative public profiles and have good reason to keep their membership in line. In Canada, there are four recognized accounting bodies (CA, CGA, CMA, RPA) and this is certainly not the place to discuss their relative merits. While all of them have general ethical guidelines, I wanted to take a closer look at marketing rules in particular. For our purposes, let’s have a look at the CGA Code of Ethical Principles and Rules of Misconduct along with the International Federation of Accountants’ Handbook of the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants.

CGA Code of Ethical Principles and Rules of Misconduct

An abridged version of these rules might simply read “be reasonable.” Although many of the rules speak to professional judgment generally and can easily be applied to marketing practices, Rule 509 (Advertising and Other Forms of Solicitation) reads:

A member shall not seek to obtain clients by advertising, or other form of solicitation that:

(a)    is false or deceptive;

(b)    includes the use of harassing conduct;

(c)    creates an unjustified expectation of favourable results;

(d)    contains self-laudatory statements that are not verifiable.

In other words, a) do not lie, b) do not embarrass us, c) manage expectations, and d) do not lie. While these requirements may not seem terribly challenging, the history of marketing is filled with half truths, hard sells, and plenty of embarrassing campaigns.

The subsequent Rule 509.1 requires that CGAs do not adopt a misleading name or style of practice. This rule is elaborated upon in Rule 510 where limitations on  the name of the firm is described in greater detail. For example, you can’t name your firm “Smith & Co.” when you’re practicing all by yourself without staff.

Similar to lawyers, Rule 509.2 limits the use of words like “specialty” or “specialist” where the designation has not been specifically authorized by the Association.

Also of note is Rule 514 preventing members from marketing goods and services at a profit, other than professional services, through the member’s firm. Sadly, this means that Smith & Co. cannot offer accounting services as well as discount auto parts. You’ll have to create a separate entity for your moonlighting endeavours.

Handbook of the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants

Similar to the CGA Rules, the Handbook is relatively straightforward with the gist being “Do not Embarass Us.” The actual language in Section 250 reads:

250.1 When a professional accountant in public practice solicits new work through advertising or other forms of marketing, there may be a threat to compliance with the fundamental principles. For example, a self-interest threat to compliance with the principle of professional behavior is created if services, achievements, or products are marketed in a way that is inconsistent with that principle.

250.2 A professional accountant in public practice shall not bring the profession into disrepute when marketing professional services. The professional accountant in public practice shall be honest and truthful, and not:

(a)    Make exaggerated claims for services offered, qualifications possessed, or experience gained; or

(b)    Make disparaging references or unsubstantiated comparisons to the work of another.

If the professional accountant in public practice is in doubt about whether a proposed form of advertising or marketing is appropriate, the professional accountant in public practice shall consider consulting with the relevant professional body.

There you have it. Nothing too onerous. With a profession as old as accounting, the hold back is really not what you can’t say, but what you should be saying to attract more clients. That’s where our challenge begins.

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