Posted by Amanda Chapel
“You dirty liar. I hope you rot in hell!!”
Sound familiar? Could have been the voice on the other end of the line with your last client call. Perhaps a little casual chat with a reporter? Hmmm... Maybe not this week but it is only Monday. Here we examine why PR is now recognized as the “lying profession” and what that means.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE PROBLEM
First some background: A colleague here tells a funny little story about when he first recognized that he was in “The Lying Profession.” At one point he headed media relations at a little Advertising/PR boutique. The firm had an interesting makeup people-wise. It was almost 70 percent Moody Bible fanatics. One of the firm’s partners had gotten it in his head that they constituted a class of people on the backs of which he could build a business, i.e. they worked hard for alms and wouldn’t/couldn't steal. Anyway, to a person they got the advertising stuff. To them that was pretty straightforward. But when it came to crafting messages, and telling stories with the intent of manipulating the news... they all got squeamish. “Isn't that lying?," they would ask. "No, it's PR!," the media relations director would respond.
Well, the good news is that like a raging alcoholic, the industry does acknowledge it's got a problem. A little over a year ago Industry sycophant Jim Sinkinson, Publisher of the Lapdog Reporter, admitted “Have Lying and Deception Become Job Requirements for PR Professionals?” And, of course, last year the president of Makovsky & Company, Ken Makovsky, wrote an article titled, "Truthiness,” where he said, "People are playing fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to sound credible.” Ken advised, “Don't play with the facts and craft something that's not the truth... just something you wish were true." Sadly, not two months later Makovsky released the results of a bullshit study, "Fortune 1000 Senior Executives Slow to React to the Growing Credibility of Corporate Blogs,” in the hopes of building a blog practice. Me thinks he speak with forked tongue.
Anyway, late last week, the problem reared its ugly head again. At an event coincidentally sponsored by PR Weak in London, in a poll of the audience of over 260 public relations executives, the majority (138) voted against the motion that "PR has a duty to tell the truth." According to an attendee there, on arguing against the motion, Max Clifford told the audience how his first duty was always to his client and that he had been "telling lies on behalf of my clients for 40 years".
WHY IS IT A PROBLEM?
Jeff Jarvis our resident blog demagogue passed judgment straight away. To sum up his assessment: PR is damned. Jarvis said that in the Age of Links, “It raises the question of whether a PR person can be transparent and, indeed, credible; this would seem to say 'no'.”
But why? Just so we are clear, why are people like Jeff comfortable with the knee-jerk reaction that lying is inherently bad. It’s not like it’s rare. Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago: "Everybody lies ... every day, every hour, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception." Deceit is fundamental to the human condition.
According to the finding of a recent survey by psychologist Jeff Hancock of Cornell University, respondents lied during a quarter of their social interactions. According to a recent study conducted at University of Massachusetts, “most people lie in normal conversation when they are trying to appear competent and likeable; and 60 percent of people lie at least once during the course of a 10-minute conversation.”
Okay. So why is that a problem? Answer: Lying is a problem when on a fundamental level it robs another of what essentially makes them human, i.e. the freedom of choice.
IS THE PROBLEM ABSOLUTE?
No. Morally speaking, the prohibition against lying is not absolute. There are several situations where lying is not only justified but a moral imperative:
THE PROBLEM WITH THE WORD “TRUTH”
It is 34 degrees out. That‘s true. I love my boyfriend dearly. That, too, is true. The first is measurable. The second is not measurable and any expression of it will always be an approximate representation. When it comes to the “human condition” and things that are meaningful... we associate “truth” with the latter and not the former. We were not put on this earth to gauge the temperature.
That said, ALL of art is a lie... a vehicle devised to carry truth. And for that fiction to be believable... it must be fact-based.
Bottom line: A PR person is a corporate story teller who writes a fact-based narrative about, and dialogue for, the legal fictional character, "the corporation."
THE PROBLEM WITH PR LYING
There are two main reasons why PR is getting itself in trouble today and with greater frequency: execution and motive.
First, PR execution has gone to hell in a hand basket. Just look at writing. PR was a “discipline” and writing was our “craft.” Today, it’s a cut-n-paste exercise by idiots that not only can’t spell, but are too lazy to use the spellchecker! Terrible. Today, we sling crap and distribute it globally with instant push-button ease. Actually, spammers aside, PR is the undisputed king of the unsolicited and unstoppable strategic commercial message.
Here's the deal: if you can’t write you can think. And if you can't think deeper than whom you are trying to convince, you’ll be revealed as a sham in short order. Some petty PR goof trying to steal my choice, go away! The Internet today does that all at lightening speed.
Now the BIG problem, i.e. motive. By definition: “A lie is an untruthful statement made to someone else with the intention to deceive. To lie is to say something one believes to be false with the intention that it be taken for the truth by someone else.”
To quote the Moody Bible folks, “Is that lying?” Yes, Mary; it is indeed. But today the dynamics have changed. Used to be our motive was purely to provide facts to the media. Then PR morphed into selling the media on manufactured news. Today, as Richard Edelman will tell you, we are unencombered by any vetting mechanism. We can take a manufactured proposition directly to our “targeted” audience(s) via the Web. Today, PR is no longer a news function at all. It’s all about surreptitious selling. Ethics with word-of-mouth marketing... pahlease. The strategic goal it to manipulate you (rob you of choice) by orchestrating messages via your peers. There's a special place in Hell for WOMM proponents.
And if that weren't bad enough, now enter publicly-traded conglomerates and New-York bean counters who don’t give a damn how you get the client to fork over the dough as long as you meet the monthly and quarterly projections. See the problem is that we then delude ourselves into thinking that we're lawyers rep-ing clients in the “court of public opinion.” That’s crap. We are sycophants and paid liars who for the right amount of money leave our moral fortitude and conscience at the door. Reread Ronn Torossian’s justification for marketing porn. Shameless and at the same time, totally commonplace. The problem is systemic.
Dear Mom, I decided to be a professional liar. I am good at it and as you are aware, it's been a lifelong dream to turn it into a career. I hope to make you and Dad proud.
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Professional Liar to become a career. Great. Haven't they been doing that on Capitol Hill for sometime?
Right on target, Jeremy. Isn't that why PR firms are copying the tactics of Political Consulants and Politicians. We've been following their lead for years. Negative "attack" PR, "astroturfs", instant organizations, instant polling and of course, the "mea culpa" strategy -- all borrowed from our counterparts in the Political World.
Any profession and occupation from doctors and lawyers through to real estate agents and cab drivers can be easily lampooned in the way you do with PR people
Every occupation / profession includes some people who are very good many who are average performers and some who are a real disgrace both in terms of ethics and performance
Simply pointing to a few dentists or pr agents or truck drivers who break the law or act unethically and saying see they are all like that I therefore condemn dentistry or lawyers or ... is neither a serious or honest approach
Why don't you do some harder analysis or do you prefer this tabloid approach (complete with prurient photos)
You miss the point. The problems that we highlight are fundamental; the issues ironic; the characters hypocritical. It is not about a few bad eggs. This stuff is systemic. That's the root of Strumpette being both comic and tragic.
As to hard analysis, I'll compare my notes to yours any day. But that said, keep in mind, this is a blog, not the Harvard Business Review.
Lastly, do I prefer the tabloid approach complete with prurient photos? Actually. yes. So does our audience. It's anything but boring. It's challenging and entertaining.
Besides, Trevor, you can't really gainsay Amanda's brief history of PR in three downward steps. How many PR contracts today are about servicing the media with straightforward information? (Step One). Not many. How many contracts are about getting the media to write your client's story? (Step Two) Fewer and fewer, in large part because what the mainstream media says now matters mostly to people over 60. So, then, how many about pure marketing, through any means available? My PR Week blares one contract after another about a firm getting hired to do some kind of brand enhancement. That's what the business is now. Creating spin to sell crap. Are you telling me my agency would get hired for these gigs if I presented my capabilities in writing really crisp press releases and fact sheets?
It occurs to me that the PR industry now exists so that companies can keep their desired lying practices at arm's length from the company proper, lest untruthful and unethical behavior would infect the whole company. Pretty soon, PR agencies will need cut-outs, somebody who knows somebody, so there are no fingerprints. Like the Mafia.