The chief executive should have skipped the meeting, but attended it, and a group is threatening to leak this information to a major local paper. I mentioned to the chief executive I expected a call from a reporter asking about the meeting; the chief executive was visibly upset.
Pausing for a minute, the chief executive had an idea. I should tell the reporter the leaked information was false. “I didn’t attend the meeting” would be the line I was to deliver.
I told the chief executive that was impossible; it was untrue. “Alright,” the chief executive answered, “figure it out.”
Thankfully the paper never called. I am unsure what I would have said to the reporter.
My relationship with the chief executive remained solid. The executive is a strong leader with integrity, despite that moment of temptation. Still, the lesson of that moment remains with me.
The PR Pro’s Balancing Act
Being a PR pro is not for the faint of heart. Serving multiple stakeholders involves a difficult balancing act. We have to keep in mind the goals of our organization, stay on track with plans and strategies, navigate the always-troubled waters of internal stakeholder dynamics and interact with an outside world that cares little about what matters to us and those to whom we report.
If, in the middle of doing this challenging work, we introduce the idea to anyone, including ourselves, that we will misstate facts, hide underlying truths or tell a bald-faced lie, then we are sunk.
Yes, we likely will survive the day, and maybe our organization will escape the consequences temporarily, but ultimately we will trade away our most precious resource—credibility.
That does not mean we won’t do our best to present our brand’s case. I have had numerous opportunities to build an argument stressing the positives some might have missed, but we have always built our messages on a foundation of fact. Admittedly it is sometimes hard to make a factual, positive case. But that’s the job, folks – translating truthful information in a compelling way to reach and persuade audiences.
Flacks or Spinners
Absent the ability to speak truth to power, we aren’t professionals; we’re flacks or spinners, or whatever other epithet people toss our way. Flacks and spinners will have to make the case for why they cave in the face of pressure or yearn to please their masters no matter the price they might pay personally. It’s not for me or the many PR pros doing their jobs the hard – and right – way.
And on those rare occasions when a convincing case cannot be made, we need to quietly, yet forcefully, inform our leaders. I’ve found it takes just one instance to clarify that I “only work for the good guys.” This is exactly what happened when the chief executive mentioned above did not want the news about the ill-considered meeting to leak. We got through it. I was never again put in that position.
The first step in making sure we stay on the right side of the truth is to dive into the details and become a student of our organization. As communicators we need to know much more than the superficial if we are to be effective advocates. In addition, being seen as an expert can be a tremendous benefit when dealing with reporters.
I offer this post not as a sermon, but as a practical guide for those who seek to join our ranks. Long term, lying is not the way to do this job. I hope young people entering the trade make a personal commitment to start off in the right direction. In the long run, they (and our profession) will be far better off for the effort.
Pete Janhunen is founder of 155 Strategies