A claim of truth and nothing but the truth in PR is probably more harmful to our reputation than lies?

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The CBC radio program which I mentioned in a recent post dedicated to spin, journalism and public relations -in its second session last Friday- carried an interesting conversation between journalist Ira Basen, creator of the program, and Jim Lukaszevzki, a prominent and reputed New York based professional, consultant and teacher. …

Read it (or listen to it) for yourself here….

Its main interest, from my perspective, is the discussion over if, how and why public relators tell the truth. This is a question, you all will have experienced it, that comes up very often, and Jim tries hard to shed some light. Amongst other arguments, he claims that the truth is, in a small percentage facts, and a large percentage, perception. To support this he says that if you interview different and disinterested witnesses of a car accident, you will receive as many different versions.

Now, how really strong is this argument and what does it prove?

By saying that truth is perception, beyond the basic facts of an undeniable and true event, you imply that truth is subjective. If you say that truth is subjective, you are in turn implying that there are many different truths. Right? Right! Now where does this leave us with the original question which was ‘do public relators tell the truth?’.

Unfortunately, Jim, it leaves us nowhere.

The stereotype we face and that we must argue, without beating around the bush, is that we spin, or hide, or shade the truth to the best interest of our employer. And how true is this claim?

To pick up from your argument: how much of this claim is true and how much is it perception? One could say that this sophistic argument only helps in reinforcing that stereotype. No?

Of course we are not payed to and expected to say the truth! Blasphemy?

In the Italian language we have three terms:

°la veritàthe truth (i.e. there has been a car accident)

°un argomento veritiero– contains a truth (the car was a Volvo, but I do not say how many people were in it, nor how the accident came to be)

°un argomento verosimile– a seemingly true argument (i.e. presumably the two cars collided because one jumped into the opposite lane).

If you accept this distinction, a public relator (beyond the more obvious facts whose truth noone denies) never tells the truth. His arguments, whenever possible, contain elements of truth, and more rarely they are seemingly true. Let me explain. Unless you take an ideological view of the term, the truth betond the basic facts does not exist. A professional who claims to always tell the truth and nothing but the truth is probably more harmful to our reputation than one who always lies.

We struggle to tell as many truths as possible (otherwise where does our credibility go? And this might even to some seem an oxymoronic question, but you will at least admit that some of us have more credibility than others….no? at least in relative terms…come on…).

When, instead, we are obliged to tell seemingly truths, then we must be

a) very very cautious, because this is very tricky…

b) always explicit that they are seemingly true to our interlocutor …

and as these discussions go on be fully aware that more and more we will find ourselves also under scrutiny by the judiciary.

We must be cautious because by saying seemingly truths we raise expectations and influence behaviours without certainty of what we have said. Thus, before doing so, the serious professional must make a very quick but detailed cost/benefit analysis from the perspective of the interlocutors’ best interest (as it is honestly perceived by the professional…of course) to see if his benefits from those seemingly truths, should they be true are more advantageous than the eventual negative consequence of those seemingly truths for him/her, if they eventually turn out to be not true.

Your opinions?

2 COMMENTS

  1. I was trying to sort out a technical web creation problem and help my son understand the Treaty of Paris during last Sunday’s show, but do not think I missed Basen tell his listeners the truth about Susan Reisler, for the second week in a row.

    Maybe I missed it, but I think he did not tell his audience that the PR woman he was interviewing makes part of her living promoting Basen’s show.

    I thnk promoting the show and then appearuing on the show without telling the listeners is dishonest. But the failure to say anything about it (she works for Media Profile, a pr agency which has the contract to publicise this and other CBC shows)is not exactly the same as lying about promoting the show. But it is still dishonest.

    Which brings up the question of sins of ommision.

    Years ago, a colleague said to two of us, after a speakerphone interview when we were corporate PR people and a reporter had talked to us, “They always stop just before they get to the good question.”

    Which brings up the question of whether we should do the research for the reporter, and volunteer, without being asked, the bad news. I say no.

    BAK

  2. good point , brian. we might compare notes on this for the benefit of others. I can think of many cases in which volunteering the bad news without being asked turned out to be useful inasmuch as such behaviour often has a preemptive effect. This in the sense that the journalist, caught off guard by the public relator’s unexpected candor, is induced in obviously reporting the bad news, but with less emphasis than he would use had he discovered it from another source half an hour after having talked to me or, even worse, by reading the news in a competitive paper the next morning. Also, if we do the research for the reporter, it is well done, and your relationship is good.. he will probably omitt to consult other sources. This is of course valid insofar as in your research you have not hidden the negatives but put them in what you honestly believe is an appropriate perspective.
    There are of course cases when the sin of omission (as long as it not outright denial..) is, in my view, an acceptable behaviour but a shortlived one. One must weigh the cost/benefit to your client/employer(first) and to your relationship with that reporter before deciding whether to committ that venial (and certainly not capital) sin.
    would you agree?

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