Lies, Damned Lies, and PR

One of the more interesting ideas making the rounds of the business-theory class lately is that companies ought to stop lying. In a networked world, you see, one has to be completely honest with consumers about everything, because they’re all sharing information with each other (and even with your employees), so lies are bound to get caught. Perhaps the most straightforward expression of this obvious-sounding idea can be found in the one really good chapter in the recent cult business book The Cluetrain Manifesto. “Dishonesty in PR is pro forma,” write Doc Searls (a fomer PR guy) and David Weinberger, before going on to draw distinctions between smart and stupid PR/marketing campaigns, returning over and over to the notion of simple honesty.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the New York Times yesterday had a short item reporting that one-fourth of PR professionals surveyed by PR Week admitted they have lied on the job. Also, more than 60 percent said they had been “compromised in their job” because a client had lied to them and they had presumably passed the bad information along.

That’s a pretty appalling record. Why does this happen? PR Week, which ran its own story about the survey in its May 1 issue, quotes one of the survey respondents: “Businesses often lie and often it’s the PR people who convey those lies. Sometimes those lies are harmful and misleading, other times they’re just polite”–for example, saying that thus-and-so executive left to pursue other interests when in fact his bosses simply hated his guts and fired him. A PR expert quoted in the story says the “lies” are probably more likely to be exaggerations or omissions–not so much lies as “fudges.” And another survey respondent worried over the idea of ethical rules binding the profession: “I have, at times, been disgusted with some PR colleagues and wish they could be exposed for what charlatans they are, but at what cost?”

I love the idea of the Internet functioning as a sort of ultimate reality check, where lies of omission, exaggeration, or whatever are routinely exposed. But it’s hard to believe that it will happen, or that businesses will stop with the “fudging” any time soon. Searls and Weinberger may well be correct that consumers would be responsive to complete honesty, but the PR Week survey strongly suggests that there is a deep culture of, at the very least, packaging up the truth (a culture that is no doubt largely shaped by many business’s basic distrust of the press).

A couple of years ago I was interviewing the newish CEO of a very large company, and he and his PR man wanted to get across the idea that Mr. New was a much more accessible and responsive guy than his predecessor. So Mr. New told a charming anecdote (that I’d actually already been prepped for by the PR guy) about the first time a rank-and-file employee communicated some complaint or other directly to him, about a year before: He was responsive. “We moved mountains and we got that thing responded to,” Mr. New told me. (I still have the notes.) Great, I replied, figuring that if I could flesh this out it might make an interesting anecdote. Who was the employee? What was the issue?

He didn’t remember. Neither did the PR guy, nor Mr. New’s top lieutenants, nor even his assistant. In follow-up calls, I was assured that while this was an important incident that really sent a message to employees (“word really got around”), no one recalled who, exactly, the employee was, or what the problem was, or how to find out–ever. End of discussion. Obviously, I could not use the anecdote, because it seemed pretty clear that I wasn’t getting the full story. I wish I could say that I dug in and found out the truth–had the employee been fired? Had the incident happened at all?–but instead I just dropped it and wrote a piece focused on the parts of Mr. New’s story that I was more certain of. But a few months later I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal, and there was Mr. New, quoted telling of his responsive management, exemplified by the tale of that first, crucial time that he responded to a rank-and-file problem and what a powerful message it sent, etc.

This is why it’s unlikely that everyone in the PR business is going to take the advice of Searls and Weinberger or anyone else advocating total, unvarnished honesty: Lots of times, “fudging” can be extremely effective.