We’re all taught to lie, aren’t we? When I say we, I don't mean just all of us in the PR business, I mean we as a society. My wife's uncle is an Education professor at Temple University. I told him I was going to write about lying and ethics in the PR profession, and he responded by telling me what you may find to be a familiar story. “Lying is more complicated than people think. Consider parents who tell their 14 year old to pretend he's 12 so he can get into the movies with a child’s ticket rather than pay the full adult price. The lessons start early." We're told never to lie to our parents, but apparently lying for them is OK. This is where our complicated relationship with lying and the truth begins.
So we're not really taught to lie per se, but we are taught - if not by words then by example - that there are acceptable lies and unacceptable lies. People lie all the time either actively or by omission - it may be to avoid hurting someone or to bolster their position in a conversation. During times of war, disinformation campaigns are a common strategy, and prisoners lie to their captors as a means to protect information that would compromise their country. Are those bad lies? There are dozens of reasons and myriad circumstances where lying is commonplace and arguably not the wrong choice. It appears however, that PR people are too often associated with lying in its worst form, resulting in incalculable damage to our reputation.
Compounding the matter, the concept of the truth is not that much clearer. What is the truth? Are truth and fact synonyms? Certainly not in my experience, and not if you believe crisis communication guru Jim Lukaszewski, who once stated, “Truth is 15% facts and 85% perception."
In the February 7, 2007 edition of Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, Lukaszewski illustrated his point this way," if a car accident were witnessed by four people on different corners, each would have a different version of what happened when the cops showed up."
Unfortunately, we can all identify with reading or listening to news stories where journalists unabashedly use facts to tell a version of the truth that suits their vantage point. Political ads and campaign spin are designed to achieve the same result: take a small misstatement or an obscure vote in Congress, and use such a fact to explain the whole “truth” about a candidate and his/her record. It’s intellectually dishonest and everyone knows it. One is left to conclude that the truth lies on the street corner that sells the most newspapers or will garner the greatest number of votes.
Take a break, have a laugh!
Sadly, because PR is simply tantamount to spin in the minds of many, the profession is considered among the worst. Back in 2000, PR Week published the results of a survey in its May 1 edition. The survey, cited by PRwatch.org, asked 1,700 PR executives about the ethics in their industry. “The result: 25 percent admitted they lied on the job, 39 percent said they had exaggerated the truth, 44 percent said they felt uncertain of the ethics of a task they were asked to perform, and 62 percent said they had felt compromised in their work, either by being told a lie by their client or by not having access to the full story.”
Yes, the survey was taken 8 years ago, but there’s no evidence I’ve found that suggests that either industry practices or behaviors have changed much, and there’s certainly no uptick in the perception.
Today, despite the fact the PR profession has some outstanding practitioners who take their ethics very seriously, the general perception remains that “we can’t handle the truth” – at least not very responsibly. It’s not difficult to tell the difference between acceptable and unacceptable ethical behavior - between the good lies and the bad ones. But if there’s no empirical truth, then do PR professionals even stand a chance at changing their reputation as spin-meisters?
One day a prospective PR client is going to ask: "If you can't get people to trust the PR profession, then how could you possibly hope to help our company earn trust among our customers and shareholders?"
Leo Bottary serves as SVP, account director PR at Mullen, headquartered in Wenham, Massachusetts. He’s spent 25 years in the PR business and is passionate about the topic of client service. Prior to joining Mullen, he served as SVP, corporate practice and director of client service for the U.S. at Hill & Knowlton. Leo also authors the blog Client Service Insights…(CSI/Season 2).