Lies and Secrets: The Currency of Public Relations

Posted on the PR Conversations blog on April 6th by Heather Yaxley

You don’t have to dig too far to find criticisms of public relations as involving lying and other less than ethical practices. The normal response from the industry is denial, citation of codes of conduct and finger pointing at isolated ‘others’.

But is lying really an absolute ‘do or don’t do’ matter? In reality, doesn’t everyone tell lies to some extent on a regular basis? So as professional communicators, doesn’t that mean PR practitioners trade in a currency of lies?

Let’s not lie about it. Shouldn’t we examine the criticisms in more depth – and more importantly, consider how lying does fit into ethical PR practice?

First to the criticisms – there’s an interesting argument here. As PR practitioners are inherently partisan – that is, we’re paid to advocate a particular perspective – our communications are biased. This is extended to mean we cannot be trusted; we are unethical and tell lies. But surely if we are open in respect to the nature of our communications, then our perspective reflects the truth as relates to our employing organization. Others may not like what we say, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

It isn’t a matter that you cannot believe PR practitioners because we are paid to say something. Rather, it should be clear that what we are saying is a particular perspective – you may or not agree, but let’s engage in dialogic or dialectic communications and examine the truths at the basis of our positions. We are not alone in presenting a good image as most people want to be thought well of – after all, isn’t that good manners? Do you share your worst habits with strangers?

Rather than viewing all PR practitioners and their communications as lies, critics need to look more deeply and rightly expose practices where lying is evident. For example, in a recent PR Conversations post, Nigel Hawkes questioned the use of statistics by PR practitioners. Here we often see deliberate selection of facts, obfuscation and pseudo-science – yes lies. But does that mean every statistic issued by PR practitioners is a lie? Lies, damned lies and PR seems to be exaggerating (ironically).

Beyond these common criticisms, there is an argument for ethical lying in PR practice. Here we’re talking about utilitarian ethics – that is, making a false statement with deliberate intent to deceive for a good reason. This may be in anticipation of consequences that seek to minimise harm or maximise benefits. Or perhaps, the reason is a noble lie – in response to the ‘does my bum look big in this’ type of question. Sometimes in public relations, we are legally or otherwise constrained from saying something, and so tell some form of lie in response. Even the comforting, “I can’t tell you at present” or avoiding questions can be construed as lying. It is, however, part of the reality of working in PR.

Of course there can be negative consequences from lying – as PR’s reputation proves. I’m also not arguing that lying is, or should be, the normal means of communications in PR practice (or elsewhere in society). Trust and truth are closely related, but part of trust means accepting that sometimes people (and organisations) do lie – but their reputation should establish that they would have a good reason for doing so.

Being sceptical about communications is also a good thing – rather than accepting everything (no matter the source), people should ask questions, consider the veracity of a position and test facts and other statements. That’s at the heart of critical thinking; encouraging people to think for themselves and make informed decisions. In public relations, this means acknowledging the competencies of those with whom we communicate as active participants, not passive audiences to be influenced by what we tell them. Exposing our statements to be tested should make us more particular about knowing the source of our claims and being able to justify if we take a particular stance which others may find questionable.

Bok presents the test of publicity – here interestingly, the expertise of PR practitioners may be relevant. The scheme of applied publicity involves considering whether a lie would survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons. This means reflection personally on the implications of telling a lie – and being aware of the likely response of the public to exposure of the lie.

In public relations, we are used to making decisions about public reactions and assessing the consequences of particular actions. This should include an ethical dimension, which could be based on compliance with laws, rules, codes and so forth. It may also need to be more nuanced and reflect that sometimes adhering to the rules will have negative outcomes – and justify a lie which could, in itself, withstand the air of publicity.

This takes us to a second trading card of public relations: secrets. We may consciously use secrets as a currency in our work. For example, we may calculate the benefits of offering an exclusive story to a particular journalist or media organization. In an age of social media, keeping secrets is more difficult, but there may be good reasons for keeping quiet or managing how information is communicated. Timing is a key element of PR communications and this requires keeping information secret until the optimum point to announce or release it.

It is this secretive nature of public relations that again impacts negatively on its reputation. Michie for example, called us ‘invisible persuaders‘ and it is this lack of understanding of what is involved in public relations that enables people to claim it involves various nefarious purposes.

Not that PR isn’t partially responsible here too. The practice of over-promising in pitching to clients (or bosses), is another form of lying which does what we can achieve a disservice. There is no secret, magical approach to public relations that miraculously will deliver results. PR cannot turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse (although it can be polished a little – without mixing my metaphors!). We cannot turn absolute disasters into unmitigated an unmitigated success – and indeed, trying to do so may well result in our own credibility sliding further into the mud.

Let’s be honest about what we can achieve and the full extent of our currency in doing so. We may well trade in lies and secrets – sometimes, when absolutely necessary. That doesn’t make us any more unreliable or dishonest than any other group of humans on the planet. I have told lies in my PR (and personal) life, I’ve also accepted others’ lies even when I know they are untrue. I am party to many secrets (past and present) that I prefer not to share publicly. And I’m sure that I’ll use lies and secrets in my future career. Anyone else wish to confess – or am I the only honest PR practitioner?

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