Duty of truth? Now, answer truthfully

25 February 2007

Martin Moore reported mid-week on a PR Week-sponsored debate that asked whether PRs have a duty to tell the truth. Out of the 260 people present, a small majority voted against: in effect, that they would lie on behalf of their client.

I was a bit surprised, not because I expect PRs to tell the truth all the time, but that the motion was voted down, albeit by a small margin. My first response to reading about it was: how many of the 124 who thought they had a duty to tell the truth about their clients were being truthful with themselves?

I had expected a larger proportion to vote for a better image for PR, with fingers firmly crossed behind their backs as they considered the ramifications of always telling the unvarnished truth about their clients' activities, why an interview got canned or why a competing mag got an early sniff of an announcement. However, as Moore pointed out, the use of the word 'duty' in the motion is important - the first duty of any PR is to their client and I don't think anyone would seriously expect anything else to be the case.

(Via Martin Stabe)


Wow. things have really changed. when I was in university studying Journalism, the PR people were part of the school of journalism and taught the same ethics as the reporting and editing group. Specifically that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Our duty is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

And the Public Relations Society of America statement of ethics says "The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is committed to ethical practices. The level of public trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically."

I wonder how many people voting actually belong to an ethical body, or if they should reconsider their membership...or maybe the bodies should start purging members?

Telling a verifiable untruth is both wrong and unwise - I'd always advise a client against it, and to be honest, I can't recall being in a position where I was asked to.

However telling the whole truth is different: for example when promoting a client's device as being the industry's fastest, is there or is there not an obligation to give equal weight to the fact that it is also the industry's most power hungry - or can that be left hidden in the data sheet? Is one actually obliged to trumpet a weak quarter's earnings to the same extent as you do a strong quarter? Does one announce the untimely departure of a senior executive with the same pomp as one announced their arrival?

My understanding is that the schools still teach ethics: I don't know I've never been to such a course. But I've seen commentary on similar issues that suggest that ethics get covered.

Should people be drummed out for not believing in the 'duty of truth'? I don't think so. I prefer to be able to assume that not everything will be truthful rather than be lulled into a false sense of security. Similarly, selective use of facts is an expected part of the business and half the fun, particularly in technology reporting. Sometimes, it's dead easy - just look for all the things that got left out of an announcement, release or presentation and go after those.

As Peter points out, there are significant real-world dangers in telling an outright lie - once you've been found out, there is no way back. The adage "what a tangled web we weave when we practise to deceive" tends to bite quite badly. I don't remember many cases where someone has been dim enough to lie about something verifiable, but it has happened.

However, there is a lot of low-level, unverifiable fibbing that goes on, ranging from the tactical "don't know" through "we don't recognise that picture/number" to "we don't understand why that announcement didn't reach you".

You've hit on a fundamental roadblock to PR effectiveness. More PRs should realise that they actually work for the journalists. This has been my philosophy for most of my professional life and it has always served me, and my clients, well. If your goal is to help reporters get what they need to do their jobs, then you will, in turn, serve your clients well. Lying does not fit into this model.

As I mentioned to Sherrilynne, I think ethics is in the air, and I'm writing about it all week. I found the results you shared interesting. That being said, Jim Lukaszewski was quoted recently as saying "truth is 15% fact, 85% perception." I happen to think he's right.

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