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Is PR a licence to lie?

Posted by Paul Seaman in Media / The Good Corporation / Truth & Trust on 11 April 2008

Why we posted this: PR professional event hosted by PRWeek debated whether PRs had a duty to tell the truth. By a narrow majority of 138 to 124, the audience voted that they did not. This is an important minefield.

The original story:
PRWeek event
February 2007

The essence of the story:
Here’s an extract from an account of the event by Lionel Zetter, President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR):

PRs have a duty to tell the truth: For the motion (and on the side of the angels) were former CIPR President Simon Lewis and former Luther Pendragon chief (now a man of the cloth) George Pitcher. Against the motion were Max Clifford and Simon Goldsworthy.

Very disappointingly the ‘truth’ motion was defeated by 138 votes to 124. I have just done a podcast for PRWeek pointing out that the CIPR Code of Conduct is very clear about the need for PR practitioners to behave in an honest and truthful manner. I also said that I hoped any CIPR members in the audience were aware of the requirements of the Code, and that they had voted accordingly.

livingissues comment:
Life is full of respectable lies. Few kind people honestly answer the question: “Does my bum look big in this?” No-one expects a retailer, or an advertiser or a PR to rubbish the goods and services he or she is paid to promote.

One way through the dilemma is for everyone to remember and respect the idea that in lots of areas a professional “would say that, wouldn’t he?”

A professional seldom has to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. It’s the “whole truth” which would kill most discussion.

And yet, professionals must also be fundamentally honest. They can “big-up” their product – their boss, their employer, whatever – but must do so within limits. They can’t lie about data and facts, if asked, even if they are free not to promote them either.

More interestingly, when they say they are really telling the whole unvarnished truth, then that’s what they’ve got to deliver.

In short, we know they will present material in a flattering light, but when they claim to be going further than a selling pitch, they’d better be careful.

Professionals can also comfort themselves that they are in the advocacy business. Within limits, they are free to say, “My client insists that….”. But if a professional said, “My client honestly believes that….” – the professional had better believe that the client is actually sincere in the matter.  These distinctions matter.

Imagine doing PR for Steve McClaren. You perhaps realise that he is bungler out of his depth managing the England football team on the world stage; but it would be an unethical breach of contract to say so. However what do you say when asked, “is he competent”? Business, like sport, requires secrecy and dissimulation to function in a competitive environment. It is a partisan case you argue for. Your version of the truth is selective. Anybody who has watched Richard, James and Jeremy arguing on Top Gear about which super car is best knows what I’m talking about.

PR makes a difference to outcomes. The client’s objective is paramount, rather than an abstract notion of truth. Only fools do not learn to bluff when playing poker. It is knowing what can and cannot be done and said under pressure to present the client favourably that makes PR a lucrative fun career.

However telling outright lies is something different altogether. Business in all its guises is built and sustained by the repetitious reinforcement of trust in its every transaction or relationship with others. For a good debate on this issue go to All About PR and to Hill & Knowlton Client Services Insights.

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