A Modest Proposal: You Do Not Have to Tell the Truth (?)

For the past few months, I have been watching the perspectives published in the public relations trade media about the communications environment in this post-2016 presidential election era. Much sincere reflection has been shared. After sorting through it all, I would like to offer an additional perspective, yet not articulated (I think), obvious (to me), and our industry’s biggest dilemma.

Most recently, Professor Denise Bortree’s IPR post, “Combating ‘Post-Truth’ with Honesty and Integrity” (IPR Blog, January 27, 2017) presents a compelling challenge to PR practitioners about how to understand and direct their practice in the current communications environment within the conceptual framing of the Page Principles.

Immediately after the presidential election, Richard Edelman blogged, “Explaining America” (Edelman blog, November 9, 2016) and made a concise case for a kind of corporate PR best-practice response. Shortly thereafter, Paul Holmes posted a very helpful wrap-up of opinion and perspective from a variety of observers of the PR industry, “Truth Matters More then Ever” (The Holmes Report, November 13, 2016). In December, Mark Weiner posted about how a sensible return to fundamental scientific method (research) could ground PR in this tumultuous era: “Is 2017 the Year for Clean-Slate Public Relations?” (CommPRO.biz, December 8, 2016).

All of these commentaries, and others, have two themes. 1) PR people need to be better masters of their technologies and tactics (do sound research, craft compelling stories/messages, be better at social media implementation, etc.). 2) Tell the truth.

Reflecting on these thoughtful and sincere comments, however, I am convinced that the PR industry (at least, if it is represented by these thought leaders) is not confronting a foundational fact about today’s communication environment (one of those Elephants in the Room).

While I agree that PR practitioners should strive to be more effective in their technologies and tactics, I also believe it is time to challenge a deep, pervasive narrative (myth?) in our practice. We have to re-examine how we think about PR and the communications environment with a skeptical, scientific perspective based on the evidence before us – which suggests to me: you do not have to tell the truth.

I am not an advocate for this hypothesis. Objective observation, however, of well-documented events in recent history strongly argue for accepting this hypothesis as reasonable.

From the time I entered professional PR 30+ years ago, I was always told by industry leadership that truth is the best policy, and that I should never do anything that I would not want to see in print on the cover of The New York Times. I cannot report that all clients or even my immediate supervisors always lived up to those standards, but there was unanimity about the principles.

The PR industry, like most of American society, has always strongly held fast to a culturally Christian notion about truth (“I am the way and the truth and the life,” John 14.6; “the truth will set you free,” (John 8.32), etc.). Equally, we espouse that 18th century Enlightenment philosophical confidence in scientific method: reciprocal scrutiny of observations, experiments, and hypotheses, in public settings, an open market of ideas, will naturally foster self-correction and self-improvement. Telling the truth is the best policy. The truth will out (succeed).

However, it is clear that today (based on objectively observed evidence, repeatedly, from multiple sources) – perhaps not for all the future – but at least for some period of the immediate future, that PR practitioners have to deal with the fact that in public discourse “telling the truth” is not always sufficient or effective. Lies (either from a moral or scientific perspective) can sometimes be more useful than the truth.

Last September, Salena Zita at The Atlantic, provided the insight, that is now famous, that regarding Donald Trump, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Since that seminal insight a whole new discourse has burgeoned around alt-media, post-truth or post-fact discourse, alternative facts, etc. Behind this (with straight face or tongue-in-cheek) is the conceptual frame – and much evidence — that telling the truth is neither always useful nor necessary.

The “post-fact” environment, much discussed as a rhetorical bludgeon in politics on both sides, is not just a superficial social media meme. If our society finds itself, as I believe it does, in a post-fact environment, the implications for PR practitioners are profound.

(PR people work for an organization or a person; they have bosses and clients. The bosses and clients have interests; they want to succeed, sometimes to dominate or defeat, within their realm of activity and competition. If PR people are to be useful, and if telling the truth is not effective, it seems negligent to tell the truth.)

This is, of course, not a new dilemma. Yet, I would argue, we cannot today fall back on old nostrums (which obviously aren’t working reliably anyway) which assert that the individual PR employee has a “higher” responsibility to the boss/client – to interpret the “best interests” of the boss/client in a broader perspective, in a longer timeframe. This position may comfort members of the PR industry elites, but it conveniently transfers the culpability to individual PR practitioners to somehow personally, intellectually and morally, “rise” (?) above the boss/client. This position absolves the PR elites from grappling with the dilemma on the ground, in the workplace; this position passes the buck down to the least-powerful PR practitioners where the organizational pressure is felt most strongly, where conformity and obedience has the highest currency.

My blog post here will not provide the silver-bullet answer this situation, but I provide some recommendations that I believe could help move forward a more fully honest and transparent discussion of the environment of public discourse in 2017 and the immediate future.

1) The PR industry needs to quit being hypocritical about asserting that telling the truth is always the most effective policy. We have to acknowledge that lying, obfuscating, and deceiving often work. Once that fact is acknowledged, we can move on to a more mature, productive discussion. If we just get beyond this, we will have taken the first step toward an enlightened notion of PR.

2) The commitment (through industry association and corporate leadership funding and initiatives) to PR research needs to evolve. The vast majority of attention to PR research has been focused on helping PR people prove their own effectiveness in helping their bosses/clients succeed (sell product, get elected, etc.). PR research needs to re-boot, to focus on examination of the discourse environment and discovery of early emerging trends. Why? Because the credibility of the PR function will always be low-order if it is mostly focused on being tactically useful to the organization (which can easily – and rationally, as we have seen — embrace deception). If PR wants to rise up the value chain, it has to, first, go deeper.

3) If the PR industry is going to assert that telling the truth is the “best policy,” we have to be more rigorous in our own thinking. The industry needs to empower PR practitioners to navigate the conundrum of “best” policy. What is the foundation upon which we rest this concept? What are we teaching students, and how is the industry supporting young and otherwise less-powerful practitioners? The status-quo conception of ethical public relations (marginally funded, rarely taught, often functionally disregarded) is not doing the job on the ground. PRSA leadership can express self-righteousness and high dudgeon about “alternative facts” (as it did in its statement on January 24, 2017), but if that is all the industry does, it will just be assuaging its own moral ache and not providing the vast majority of practitioners the intellectual strengthening and resources to grapple with the challenge.

PRSA, Page Society, IPR, and a few other organizations have been authentic and sincere in promoting principles about PR ethics. But we cannot sit back, in the public discourse environment today, and have the PR industry elites say “Not my fault!” The PR industry elites did not create the dynamics of the communications ecosystem today, but they did not forestall it, and the amelioration will not come from waving an old flag of yesteryear’s best intentions.

With more rigorous self-scrutiny, with better research into the dynamics of communication and social discourse, with more hard-headed, un-hypocritical commitment to educating and supporting the personal character of rising practitioners – then PR may find itself both more effective and in a more strategic, high-level position in the organizational decision-making.

The truth may not set us free, but unsentimental, uncomfortable and open scrutiny of the practice may yet wake us up to the actual dynamics of communication and the pervasive moral ambiguities of our relationships in public.


Frank WaltonFrank Walton, Ph.D., is a communications research and strategy consultant at Franklin Walton LLC. He is a member of the Measurement Commission at the Institute for PR. Follow him on Twitter @franklinwalton.

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Frank: Thanks for your thoughtful reflection and challenge to make sense and meaning out of the environment we live in and practice in today.The disparity between PR industry ethical guidelines and the actual practice of “truth” in PR has been debated for the over 30 years I have been practicing and teaching. Now the gap has opened to what feels like a chasm in recent times. I am a believer that ethical practice starts with the individual. To what degree are we compelled (strong armed?) to put our client bottom line first and to live the world of partial truth…truthiness…alternative truths at the expense of ethical behaviors? Do we point to the current environment to justify actions by saying, “It’s okay to lie because lying meets the objective…so whatever works, do it?” I’m sure some in our industry do that, and always have. We never lived in a world of absolutes…only ethical standards and ideals to work towards. I still think it is appropriate and right to hold the standards as a guide. But I have no illusions that ethical standards are the primary driver for business decisions, but are apparently diminishing in their value. Challenging times to teach and practice.

  2. Excellent commentary, and one I will share in my class. You have articulated the practicalities of practicing in today’s “Alt-fact” environment. Perhaps the next treatise would be titled, “The Inefficiencies of Truth-telling.” Enjoyed your article.

  3. Excellent! You have articulated the practicalities of the practice, and of the world we live in today as professionals, academics, and counselors. Perhaps the title of the next treatise on truth might be “The Inefficiency of Truth-telling.”
    Enjoyed the read, and plan to share in class.

  4. Outstanding analysis. In the absence of a coherent ontology, discussion of “truth” in PR are vacuous at best, fraudulent at worst, and ultimately self-serving. You don’t have to be Pontius Pilot or Blaise Pascal to understand that “truth” is a dicey proposition. Good luck to PR Practitioners who flare in self-righteous indignation as their particular sacred political cows are gored, as their cherished experiences are discarded.

  5. Frank – a worthy post, even if I cavil with a few items:

    When we use the word “truth” we’re in a zero-sum frame. Truth vs lies. The fact is, as you intimate, many situations are subject to interpretation. The world is seldom black and white. I do not offer this statement in response to any specific topic area; my intent is to represent for a somewhat more difficult moral conundrum.

    Second, with respect to what we teach, the theoretical scholarship seems oppositional. We have 2-way symmetry or we have persuasion. Part of that seeming dichotomy is what contributes, I think, to the idea that we’re not teaching “right and wrong” in PR scholarship. This view is often animated by political biases and not restricted to specific subject cases.

    Therefore, I see a theoretical gap in PR overall, one that assumes a single version of truth to be used either to better humanity or to advance the cause of filthy lucre, depending on where one sits. The concept of persuasion, of bringing publics to support your organization fits fine as long as it doesn’t “harm” — but the truth of harm often differs according to political perspective.

    We have come to a point where the very definition of facts depends on one’s perspective; it’s a triumph of post-modern and deconstructionist thinking, the ascent of relativism. PR is not immune from these trends, as I believe you are suggesting.

    • Thanks, Sean. Yes. I agree with you. We too often teach (and preach) PR as a zero-sum game, and PR is not immune from trends in public discourse. We’ve got to be more honest with ourselves and our bosses and clients. If we can’t come to a more nuanced and sophisticated view of PR, we will only encourage the next generation to be cynical and indifferent to even considering truth as relevant.

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