Beyond Truth… Sincerity?

These days, as the World PR Festival in London (June 23-24) comes closer, the public benefit of Public Relations returns once again to the top of our agenda. But could it be that this time we can no longer rely on the argument, so often used in the past, that PR have a positive impact or at least are neutral for the public when practiced respecting the “truth”?

I fear that what once sufficed to convince ourselves about the responsible practice of PR (tell the truth) is no longer sufficient (although it is still necessary).

In a moment in which PR professionals (and thus to the profession) are constantly criticised for contributing to manipulation and the loss of autonomous judgement by means of non-sincere communication (aka spin), we may ask ourselves if “good old truth” is still valid as a guiding principle.

After being stated as one of the guiding principles of Ivy Lee’s “Declaration of Principles”, “truth” as a value in PR evolved putting emphasis on the “content” of what was said, but not so much on the “process” of how it was said. It was very important to say something (meaning not withholding information) and guarantee access to information, but it didn’t really matter a great deal how that information was presented.

Then the evolution of our profession made “truth” a concept much more related with the process of “reception” than with “emission”. This was crystallized in the maxims “If people believe what we tell them, then we are telling the truth” or “truth is 20% facts and 80% perception”. This “relativism” applied to the notion of “truth” has had strange impacts and certainly didn’t help in our credibility. But the most important result is that we no longer seem to believe in one single “truth”, and we accept that there can be different “truths”. This might be understandable in a world where facts are changing every day and the rhythm of transformations and the flow of information make “truth” a sort of metamorphosis. Could this mean that that the basis on which PR professionals are (increasingly) judged these days is whether they are sincere or not?

But how do you measure sincerity? Is being sincere the same as telling the truth? Can you be sincere when you only tell “your” side of the story? How can sincerity be a condition on which to rebuild a notion of “truth” which is not relativistic? Your views?

Please follow our blog:

8 Replies to “Beyond Truth… Sincerity?

  1. João, I’ve transcribed my notes below, which captured a good percentage of Peter Spurway’s presentation. Note that the emphasis is on self-evaluation of one’s personal truth(s), rather than how truth is presented in an organizational role. (Unfortunately, the session was shorter than scheduled, as the first keynote presentation ran late, meaning that there was less time for group discussion.) I’m also going to send a message to Peter Spurway, inviting him to weigh in, if he wishes, as to the veracity of my recording of his presentation.

    Truth: Solid, liquid or gas

    Much of what we do as public relations practitioners is to “create movement,” whether this is in the opinion(s) of a person, group or organization, or towards a service, product or reputation.

    The Canadian Public Relations Society does have a professional code of ethics, but even this document demonstrates the elasticity that “truth” can have.

    Is there only one truth? More likely are there many versions of the same set of facts, some of which can be tailored so as to be misleading or deceptive.

    How one presents the fact can tailor perceptions. This means that the language you employ is critical on how things are perceived by a particular audience.

    The savvy practitioner knows his or her various audiences, including to which language they will be the most perceptive.

    Is truth, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder?

    An example presented was the case of global warming, where Spurway indicated there was “Lots of science, but little literacy.” This translates to the common perception that because global warming is in the news a lot, there must be something there.

    When one examines the relationship between the facts and the truth, bear in mind that the facts must be verifiable.

    Truth can also be shaded, in an evasive nature. The answer to the question: “Why are you late for work?” can be answered simply (and correctly), “Because I didn’t arrive on time,” even if this fact does not include an adequate explanation (based on verifiable facts).

    The crossroad, to a certain extent, comes down to the relationship between what we know and what we believe.

    Many people have deep-seated beliefs, without the benefit of real knowledge. In this case, “real knowledge” translates to independent, fact-based, scientific knowledge, without any shadings of subjectivity.

    Another example presented was air travel. Individuals board and deplane without questioning, “Where do airplanes come from and go?” (Travellers can’t see, don’t know, and generally don’t care. Perhaps the airplane simply rose up from its storage place at the airport.) Still, air travel is conducted with the belief that your plane is safe for travel and that it will eventually arrive at the expected destination.

    Spurway asked the question: If millions believe something, does that make it true? Or does that make it their truth?

    Attendees were asked whether they ever tried to move the needle of opinion, by consciously (or subconsciously) ignoring certain facts to make a point.

    And if you remove certain facts, what do you replace them with?

    In essence, how far are you willing and able to bend your truth, to make a point?

    Factors involved in “moving the line” can include money, time invested and loyalties…but everything that exists on both sides of the line remains true. That being said, you are deceiving some parties if the facts you present are distorted. This is particularly true if the set of truths are not useful to our organizations/us, but matter to others. Ambiguity of truth resides in what is left out, from the other side of your drawn line.

    Another core question asked was who defines the truth for you, the practitioner? Is it your personal values? Those of your boss? Your organization?

    (At any given time) you have to know where your line resides, including what and who defines and moves it.)

    Sophistry means that you theoretically you aren’t lying, but are still “playing” with the truth.

    “The role of trusted advisors (i.e., PR practitioners) to decision makers is to sometimes tell the inconvenient truth.”

    This is particularly true when a leader may be persuading him or herself to something that is not useful. That is the time it is necessary to speak up and say, “Sorry, I can’t go there, and this is why.” (Ideally, when you are staking out your truth in a group setting, others may gain confidence from your opposing viewpoint and join in the discussion.) This is the occasion to outline and discuss: “Here’s where I think this is going to take us, and this is why it’s not good.”

    If the leader’s response to this argument is reduced to, “You are not a team player,” then it’s probably time to move on from this position, if not organization.

    Spurway ended his session with this recommended objective: Get to know your truth. Check back in, every six months or so. Ask yourself, “Has my needle moved?” And if it has, ask yourself why. Do this in conjunction with the question, “Where is the rest of the world’s line, in comparison with mine?” The personal evaluation should ask, “Am I still OK with my line? Would my mother be OK with it?” (Any gaps should be considered, including why they exists.)

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    Stefano points out a strong argument for accepting sincerity (honesty applied to communication?) as a guiding value explaining that it is a requisite when you aim to develop long term relationships with publics. This relates to Diomira’s statement that publics don’t want to listen to organisations which aren’t honest.

    Roberto notes that “truth” is a problematic concept when applied to PR activity, pointing the case of Media Relations. Maybe in this case the main question is whether this notion of “sincerity” should be interpreted as full disclosure of information. I’m convinced that philosopher Thomas Nagel put it very wisely in his “Concealment and Exposure” article where he argues that the mechanism to decide what should be made public and what should remain private is a fundamental mechanism for living in society. He also explains that none of us in social context reveals everything he/she is feeling, or even in fully sincere way, his/hers thoughts.

    Toni, your questions remind me of how Corporate Identity scholars dealt with the fact that the relevant identity of the corporation is always that in the “eyes of the beholder”. I found some parallel between your observations and how Balmer and Greyser – in Multiple identities of the Corporation – speak about different corporate identities: actual identity (real attributes), communicated identity (resulting from controllable and non controllable communication), conceived identity (as perceived by the publics), ideal identity (defined as the optimal identity in a given moment), desired identity (in the minds of the leaders). The different points of view which we have to approach in any PR dilemma have much more to do with opinions and beliefs resulting from information and values and other cognitive processes, which are concepts very different to that of truth.

    On the other hand, how has Law learned to deal with the notion of truth in a way that doesn’t appear so problematic to the eyes of people? Maybe in the field of Law, truth is understood as something which you can sustain by proven facts and an acceptable explanation. Would it add anything if we would accepted at least a similar notion for our field? Carlos, I understand that you can be sincere about a non-truth although this suggestion might make it less likely, do you agree?

    Judy, I look forward for your comments.

  3. A philosophical view of PR– I love it!
    Plato viewed truth, in his “forms,” as perfect definitions of prescribed categories. If this is the case, then the answer would be no, truth is not relative.
    But a giant, from a distance, looks like an ant– no one can deny the difference in perception from one individual to the next.
    Maybe because I have a psychology background, I have always admired figures like Bernays for their psychological approach to the biz. You call it misleading; I call it brilliant.
    I do believe its possible to be sincere about a non-truth, though that is a pretty good reflection of the character of that person rather than the content they are “spinning.”
    We PR folks wield a very sharp sword. It’s our responsibility to do so with those surrounding us in mind.

  4. When I am back home and can find some time, I’ll try to post some of the notes from Peter Spurway’s very interesting CPRS conference presentation: Truth – solid, liquid or gas?
    What is the truth? Is truth, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? Is there only one truth, or many truths? Are some truer than others?

    (Peter is vice president, corporate communications and public affairs with the Halifax International Airport Authority and served as the conference MC.)

  5. Last month Roberto and I had an interesting discussion regarding this question. Our debate was born after the speech of a young pr practitioner in which she said that her work consists of “cover” mistakes and negative news using sometimes lies.
    I agree with Diomira when she said “Organizations which aren’t honest are no longer listened to”. Our profession has to aim at solid and lasting conversation with our publics. We can build this conversation only through the truth, not through our point of view.
    Probably this can mean that sometimes we will have to admit our fault, not a bad job. Is it so terrible?
    Or better, I know that a “Big Truth” doesn’t exist, it’s not this our problem. I don’t think that our profession consists in telling always the truth, I’m not so idealist.
    But I think (and I hope) that our profession is the way to build an honest and sincere relationship between our clients and their publics.
    Above all nowadays in which internet and social media permit us to modify so fast our first perception and to build an our thought. Probably nowadays public is so aware that it’s too difficult manage the truth.

  6. It takes two to tango!!!!

    What does truth really mean? I don’t understand the real meaning of the word “truth” applied to PR activities. I can accept the use of terms as respect, correctness, honesty if these words are intended as having right behaviour when I practice my profession. On the contrary I’m baffled by the deep concept of truth. Our profession is too wide to use truth as main value. E.g. how many times do aggressive journalists cross the “truth line”?
    The answer is superficial! Some of you could say that there are problems about media relations, but I think that this isn’t always….true.
    So, if I respected truth as a principle, I would play a game in which rules are too different to exercise a good job.

  7. I wonder….this weeks issue of the Economist (pg.18)covering the behavioral targeting process (interesting..) writes: ‘it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it’, which sounds a lot like ‘it doesn’t matter who you work for but how you do it’.
    In both instances, focus is on the process rather than on the content.
    Is this called relativism?
    I personally would caution to avoid using terms such as truth, at least when referring to public relations practice.
    I am conscious of running the risk of being placed in the relativist camp by just saying this.
    A truth is a truth is a truth is a truth.
    Who’s truth are we talking about?
    Yours? Mine? Theirs?
    In any given and decent public relations dilemma or issue there are many, many truths to be considered…
    Et alors?
    This is what pr is all about!

  8. I strongly believe in this refounding of the concept of truth as based on sincerity. Relativism is often just an alibi. When an organization speaks, people are expecting it to tell them the truth. At the end, we all perfectly know what truth means. Organizations which aren’t honest are no longer listened to. Particularly today.

Comments are closed.