Half-Truths, Spin & Propaganda: Why PR Needs to Embrace the Quest for Truth

“More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette”Proclaimed a 1946 advertisement by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

For nine years, “More Doctors” was the campaign. After all, if doctors smoke, then it had to be safe. By 1950, Richard Doll had published research demonstrating a link between smoking and lung cancer. Whether due to greed, denial or apathy, tobacco companies continued to hock their wares, ignoring the mounting evidence through the 1970s, claiming contributory negligence in the 1980s, and finally being forced to own up to their complicity in 1998. For 48 years, the dialogue that tobacco companies had with their consumer was misleading at best, intentionally obfuscating the risks. While this is an extreme example, it is a chilling tale of how far off course companies can go.

Corporations have all kinds of checks and balances to prevent misrepresentation of information, from lawyers to government to their consumers. There’s no reason that public relations can’t operate as one of these arms. In fact, it is our duty to ensure that what the public hears is true. This may be counterintuitive to how many view the public relations world. After all, publicists are known for being “spin doctors.” They gauge people and leverage their emotions and belief systems, their hopes and dreams. The question is how public relations can deliver the message, while staying honest.

On the surface it seems like an impossible conundrum; however, the more thought you give to the issue, the less impossible it seems and the more obvious the answer is. It takes work and self-discipline. The work: acquiring deep and broad-sweeping knowledge of both the brands with whom you work and their core and fringe consumers. The self-discipline: positioning the salient points of the brands in a way that is simultaneously truthful and compelling.

It requires true partnership with clients and a willingness to challenge them on the statements they make. It compels us to view consumers with compassion and fairness rather than as pawns on the purchasing chessboard. It involves accepting that not every product is meant for every person. It means learning how to stick to your guns and say no, even if that results in the end of a partnership.

If it’s so much more work, the question remains why? Why is it so important for public relations to reinvent itself as proponent of truth, as an advocate both of corporations and the public?

The first reason is simple. It’s the ethical, fair choice to make. Consumers deserve the facts.

The second, far more pragmatic, reason is that transparency is no longer optional; it’s a requirement for success. Social media has forever changed the playing field. No longer are marketers Oz behind the curtain. Consumers, through Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, have pierced through the veil and their positions are all now equally valid. For a brand to win over the people, it can’t risk telling half-truths when, with just one mouse click, consumers can research statements and read reviews. While you won’t win every consumer, transparency will keep the ones your brand resonates with loyal. Deception, on the other hand, guarantees losing them all.

It’s a brave new world out there and public relations can play a vital role in creating directives and policies that safeguard truth. The good news is that this world can be one built on mutual respect between consumers and corporations, with public relations serving as the linchpin in fostering in openness.

Image via Graeme Maclean / Flickr

Serge Gurin

Serge Gurin is a partner and Chief Vision Officer at Pierce Mattie. Serge's key areas of focus include vision and growth strategy, concept design, science and technology, and creative development. A science fiction and comics geek, Serge does side projects in science, transhumanist philosophy, and neuroatypical research, and makes a mean vindaloo.

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