It’s Possible – And It’s Frightening.
#1 in a Two Part Series.
PR strategies have always been developed with one major basic premise: never ever put your credibility at risk. Simple logic: if you cannot be believed, you can’t persuade. But that is becoming less and less of a basic premise because “truth” is becoming less and less important.
I’ve been developing PR strategies for more than four decades. I’ve sometimes been guilty of stretching a point too far, “spinning” a concept a bit too much, maybe not revealing nuances that could be interpreted negatively. But I’ve never lied. It’s frightening to imagine what will happen to structured PR strategies if the communications campaign was not beholden to being truthful.
There are two things everyone needs to know: 1) the prospects of “truth” becoming a thing of the past are very real, and is a process that is already occurring, and 2) the prospects of what happens when truth does become a thing of the past are frightening – very frightening.
The prospects for “truth” becoming obsolete are very real.
The most striking example of the growing irrelevancy of “truth” is the campaign of Donald Trump. He will trumpet some statement that lacks factual reality (e.g., he saw “thousands and thousands” Muslims celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers), and reassert it as if it were the truth even after fact-check after fact-check show that the statement just cannot be substantiated. He will not only refuse to acknowledge the absence of truth, he will “double down” on his baseless assertion, without any apparent concern for whether it has been proven to be baseless. Here is what is to me the take-note-of-this part of this phenomenon: when reporters interview his supporters and ask if they are concerned about whether Trump has been honest or not, the answer is very often something along the lines of “well, what he said may not be totally true but he has a point and he could get things done if he became president.” Huh? The ability to sound like a man in control is apparently more important to Trump supporters than his being honest. You can lie as long as you get things done. This isn’t a fringe candidate. He is (and has been for months) the leading candidate of the Republic Party for President, with the support of 20+% of primary voters who do not care about truth. As truth loses importance, it dies.
To be fair, citing Trump in this case is to pick on very low hanging truth. Let’s look instead at Hillary Clinton. Remember her series of pronouncements about her use of the private email server. What started as complete denial morphed into “well I didn’t use it for confidential matters,” which morphed into “well I didn’t use it for many confidential matters.” Or how about the last time she ran for President when she talked about running through a volley of bullets? Come on, you don’t say something like that and not know that it didn’t happen. What do you call that? Forgetting the truth, or not caring about the truth? Or what about Bobby Jindal campaigning on the premise that as Governor of Louisiana he oversaw a great economic success story when, in fact, he oversaw a financial disaster: the state unemployment rate rose to become the third highest in the nation, job growth was the slowest in the nation, and the state’s bond rating moved to “negative.” So what do you call the rosy highly successful picture he painted of Louisiana under his reign as Governor? “Spin”? Exaggeration? Lies? Do you think it mattered to him? Do you think that while he was boasting of his success as governor he forgot about how the state’s flagship university (LSU) could not find investors for a $114.5 million bond offering and had to cancel plans for several major initiatives? Or maybe he thought that if he did not tell the truth, it didn’t really matter? Did it matter to President Obama when he said (several times) if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor? Don’t want to call that a “lie”? Well, it really wasn’t the truth, was it? Did it matter?
Let’s move from politics to business. In November 2015, the New York attorney general launched an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine “whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.” Really? Hard to imagine that a corporation would undermine its multi-billion dollar business just for the sake of telling the truth? The billions of dollars matter. Truth used to matter. Truth doesn’t matter any longer.
Or how about the launch of the new Cheerios “Protein” cereal? In that case, General Mills proclaimed that the new cereal provided 11 g of protein with milk. To make certain that compared favorably to “regular” Cheerios, all General Mills had to do was base their calculations on a serving size of 1.24 cups versus the one cup serving size used to measure the components of regular Cheerios. In the process, somehow, they forgot to give equal weight to the fact that whereas regular Cheerios has 100 calories, the protein version has 210. What do you call that? Not being totally forthcoming? Maybe we can simply call it “not caring about the truth.”
What about when the NFL says it is very concerned about preventing concussions and then does nothing when a star quarterback is knocked silly, can hardly stand up, but is kept in the game? When pushed on the issue, all the NFL has to do is reconfirm its commitment to reducing concussions, whether that commitment is “true” or not.
Oh yes – the media aren’t immune. Think Brian Williams.
Do you need more examples of the decline of the importance of the truth? Do a Google search using some relevant phrase. You may not conclude that “truth is dead,” but you will probably agree that the trend line is going in that direction – and accelerating.
How this phenomenon will increasingly be integrated into PR strategies, and why that will be a very dangerous thing – in the next post.
About Doug Poretz: After a four+ decade long career crafting public relations and communications strategies at the C-suite level, Doug now works with a limited number of clients, helping them rethink and improve their approach to how they communicate. For more about me, click here. For how I work with clients, click here. And for my numerous previous blog posts, click here. You can sign up for alerts about forthcoming posts by completing an easy form at my blog.