Pete asks:

I have a question about the legalities of commercial arrangements with third parties given that as a Celebrant we’re government officers and our duty to avoid potential conflicts.

Just about everyone has a people we love section on their website, but, there’s obviously a line somewhere between [accepting a commercial discount on product/services for repeat business and independently giving a genuine recommendation to my clients] and [entering into commercial arrangements for non-commercial discounts / free products as a quid-pro-quo for implied or explicit endorsement & referrals].

I guess I’m just wondering where that line is as I’m currently faced with two potential arrangements – one in my gut I feel is ok, the other in my gut I think is not ok.

The one I think is ok: Is with a sound and lighting hire company who I’ve been hiring and buying sound gear from for over 15 odd years. When I’m booked to be the sound-man for a reception, I hire the big PA & lighting gear from them. I also bought half the components for my ceremony PA from them and do all of my servicing through them. So, they’ve offered me a discount of 25% on hire products for being a great repeat customer who always returns the gear in perfect condition, etc. etc. etc. and this is a discount that they offer to other great customers (i.e. it’s a “commercial discount”). I’m quite open with anyone who asks where I hire and buy my sound gear from because they offer great service, the gear is well maintained and high end, etc. etc. etc. and importantly it’s a genuine recommendation if anyone asks me where I think is the best place to get sound and lighting gear in Brisbane. Why I think this is ok is because it’s a commercial discount that I’ve been offered, the discount is based on being a good repeat customer, etc. rather than a quid-pro-quo, etc. etc. etc. and finally, as the hire is an expense that I pass on to my clients, it’s actually my clients that benefit from this discount, not me.

The one I think is not ok: Is a proposition from a contact that I was a client of, who just left his previous suit shop that does hire and sales to go out and do his own thing. He’s offered to figure out an arrangement where I hire suits from him on a rotating basis so that in effect I’m pretty much wearing a new suit for each wedding I do. He is currently on my “people I love list” based on the exceptional service I received as a client of his, but I’m getting the feeling that he’d like me to include something like an “I’m dressed by @company” to all of my social posts. The first thing that I think might be inappropriate is that while I delt with this person (I bought, and my groomsmen hired the suits from my wedding from this particular person) and he was my sole contact there (and frankly he was carrying that business) our transaction happened while he was working for another company for which he no longer works and I’m a client of ‘company x’ not a client of the contact. Finally, to me, I feel like it’s much more of an endorsement type arrangements as there’s a quid-pro-quo involved because I’m getting something (suits) at a non-commercial discount and he’s getting something (endorsement & social media props) rather than a genuine testimonial. So obviously, given that I’m iffy on it I’m not going to take him up on the offer, but it sparked a thought for me of “where is the line?”. I’m also really interested as to what the literature says about these kinds of things as obviously if the agreement was struck on a commercial basis that was appropriate this is something I’d love to take advantage of so that I’m not recycling the same 5 suits over and over again.

Do you think this would this be ok? If I were to pay a recurring “subscription type” fee to him that on an annual basis would be similar to what my annual expenditure on suits would be with some premium for things like increased dry-cleaning costs, etc. I openly say that “I get my suits from ‘company’ who I like and I’m treated well by” if I’m asked and if one of his suits is in a social post, the company is tagged – as I would with any other supplier. I’m still not a 100% on something like this, but it doesn’t feel distinctly wrong like the current proposition does.

So the good news is that the new conflict of interest guidelines mean that both of these circumstances are pretty much ok, the AGD simply asks that you manage your own potential conflicts of interest, so that you don’t have any. Always remember that the key words in a conflict of interest are in the actual title words: conflicted interests. Does situation A sit in conflict with situation B? Is your interest in one affecting the other. That’s why the AGD maintains a tight hold on the scenarios around celebrants employed by venues and celebrants who are migration agents (you can’t be either) because there are numerous obvious situations where your interests could easily be conflicted on a regular basis.

The most obvious conflicts of interest for the “employed by a venue” situation would be if you deemed the couple not fit to marry and if you were self-employed maybe you’d lose $1000, but because your employer could stand to lose $20,000 then maybe your judgement would be blurred. The migration agent situation is clear enough.

But that’s not to say that both of these situations are within the law. In the realm of the Celebrant Institute website we are not qualified to offer legal advice of any kind at any time. Sarah and I are not lawyers, although I have watched six seasons of Suits, so I know my way around a courtroom. We do however offer advice and insight on the marriage laws and guidelines as we interpret them, and Sarah actually is qualified and authorised to offer training on those laws and guidelines, but when it comes to other laws like consumer law and business law, we’re as intelligent as you are after a quick Google search.

So this isn’t legal advice, this is just Josh advice:

I would commercially marry myself to as few people as possible. The wedding industry’s least favourite people are those that have their hands in everyone’s pockets because they value relationship less than dollars. My argument has always been that we should all expect nothing from each other and make genuine and generous offerings of recommendations based on relationship and talent. If we employ low expectations and high quality recommendations then logic would tell us that it will all come back to us, and if we’re charging enough to run our business then we don’t need the $50 from him and the discount from her.

It’s a simple methodology but its one that has served me well for almost ten years.

If I do ask for money (or value) from you, you’re either getting married by me (or I’m performing some other service for you), you’re attending a workshop I’m running, or you’re a celebrant looking for advice or referrals, I charge for my celebrant directory because it’s an easy path of referral – I list celebrants similar in nature to me and they receive referrals of couples who enquiries with me that I’m not available for, and because my enquiry rate is high enough, its a solid business model, but the expectations are still low on all sides, and if anyone leaves, there’s no hurt feelings. The celebrant directory doesn’t negatively affect anyone.

In a similar vein, you may have read our “PA system for celebrants” article in which I highly recommend a Bose S1 PA system. As of today that article has no sponsorship or commercial arrangement around it, but I’ll honestly tell you that before I published I attempted to get a deal in place which included a package for members and possibly a deal for Sarah and I, but I couldn’t wrangle one in time. I’m still pursuing this arrangement and if it comes into play, I’ll update the page accordingly offering a disclosure that the review was prepared independently but now we’ve entered into a commercial arrangement with someone. I won’t be apologetic or awkward about it, we won’t be the first business to enter into a commercial arrangement and we won’t be the last, and we’ll probably be far more open about it than we are required (its not required) because that’s Sarah and my nature, and plus we’re betting on the fact that you guys aren’t idiots and you’d see right through it if I only l linked to one company. I’d also be expecting you to be smart enough to Google the PA system name and do your own research, and if you’re not smart enough, then our commercial arrangement wins.

I can foresee other commercial arrangements being viewed negatively by industry, but Pete’s suit example doesn’t look to be one of them.

Do note that when you do have a commercial arrangement as a self-employed sole trader you are only required to publicly disclose that arrangement if the marketer has “control” over your posts, that is, they tell you what to post, and how to post it. More on that on the ABC News website.

As we’ve already covered, I can’t talk to the legal side of the suit deal however (it sounds ok), but I’ll let you do your own Google search or ask a lawyer yourself.