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Truth on trial

Truth on trial
The Truth

The New York Chapter of The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently considered TRUTH and put it on trial. The panel included media, marketing and education professionals who expressed their thoughts and experiences in relation to their practice and experience in the public relations industry.

Although there was a general consensus that presenting the truth was usually a better option than offering something else, workshop attendees were asked, “Have you ever lied?” At least one-third of the audience admitted to making statements that were not entirely true.

The Institute for Public Relations held a similar conference in 2018, looking at Truth Decay and the trend to  blend facts with fiction. The event looked at public relations professionals and their role as “creators and disseminators of information who depend on trust in the information environment.” The consensus? PR plays a role in truth-telling and Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of the Institute stated, “…while bad actors comprise a small portion of the total profession…I do think PR bears some responsibility for truth decay.” Norris West, director of strategic communications, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that, “They [PR} end up hiding the truth through a series of small decisions…” with the outcome clouding the facts.

Coming down on the side of ethics, McCorkindale determined, that at the end of the day, “…failure to provide factual, real data is not only unethical, but erodes overall confidence in the professional…trust can be easily lost.”

Living in a Trump World

Some people think that Donald Trump has been the key factor in launching and promoting fantasies, conspiracy theories and lies; however, Kurt Andersen (author, Fantasyland: How American West Haywire) finds that fantasy has been with us since the dawn of the republic and Americans have been willing to believe what they want to believe for centuries.

Is There a Difference?

According to Larry Walsh (the there is a difference between truth and fact. Walsh finds that facts are irrefutable, based on empirical research and quantifiable. A fact can be verified, validated and historical.

Truth may include facts but can also be based on beliefs (according to Walsh). Some people prefer truth over facts because they are more comfortable with the information, easily understood and may even reflect their preconceived notions of reality.

Walsh finds that while facts are indisputable; truth is acceptable. Economist Charles Wheelan (Naked Economics; Naked Statistic) finds that, “…it’s easy to lie with statistics, but it’s hard to tell the truth without them.”

Kellyanne Conway, US Counselor to President Trump stated, during a Meet the Press interview (January 22, 2017), when pressed during an interview with Chuck Todd, explaining why Press Secretary Sean Spicer could “utter a provable falsehood,” stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts.” In an attempt to defend her statement, Conway decided that “alternative facts” were “additional facts and alternative information.”

Can We Find the Truth?

With global access to infinite information we should be able to read or hear the truth; however, according to the Rand Institute, we are experiencing a Truth Decay in American public life. Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich (2018) authors of Truth Decay, have determined there are four trends to consider:

  1. Facts are no longer considered as TRUTH; there is even disagreement about what is a fact. Data is being questioned, including the ways it is collected, analyzed and interpreted.
  2. The line between opinion and fact has become almost invisible.
  3. Opinions and personal experiences are taking the place of facts and truth.
  4. Previously respected sources of facts are no longer trusted.

Ari-Elmeri Hyvonen (2018, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) determined that Donald Trump has demonstrated his total rejection and hatred for factual reality. As William Connolly (2017) suggested, Trump has embraced the concept of the “big lie” known to us from National Socialism propaganda finding that it was Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf, who noted that the masses are more easily deceived by big lies than small ones (Hitler, 1943, 231-232). The “big lie” works because it is stated by a person or persons in authority; appeals to emotion rather than reason; confirms an innate (even if unacknowledged) bias in listeners; and is repeated and repeated and repeated.

Hyvonen also addresses the concept of Careless Speech that is “free from care.” This type of rhetoric is not concerned with the truth, indicates an unwillingness to engage with other perspectives, does not accept the fact that speech has repercussions and words matter. This type of speech also creates uncertainty: Are words said aloud actually meant? The belief is that anything said can be unsaid.

Is It a Lie or BS?

Harry Frankfurt, in his book On Bullshit (Princeton University) reflects on the concept of “bullshit” finding that the “bullshitter” is totally indifferent to how things really are. A liar tries to conceal the truth whereas a bullshitter only cares to accomplish his personal purpose.

Hyvonen finds that “…careless speech does not build on carefully crafted empty statements that sound good but are nearly devoid of meaning. Rather than trying to persuade, careless speech seeks to create confusion and bring democratic debate to a halt.”

Is the Truth Hiding?

Kavanagh and Rich determined that there is a decay in truth due to perception, the increase of social media and other information portals, along with the consumers inability to keep pace with the amount of information readily available, changes in the sources of information, and the schism between politics and society.

As we stray away from facts and data that are useful (if not critical) in political debate and policy decisions, there is a decrease in civil discourse as we are unable to agree to agree (or disagree). The absence of an agreement on facts also weakens important cultural, diplomatic and economic institutions.

Media has moved from reliance on facts and hard-news reporting to dependence on commentators and opinions because of budget limitations and target markets. This adds to a mélange of facts and opinion, increasing the speed at which truth decays.

Academics and research – based organizations, faced with the demand to publish (frequently influenced by corporate sponsors or other funding-based agendas) frequently lead to publishing of biased, misleading or incorrect conclusions, meeting the needs of the sponsors, and losing site of the interests of the consumer.

Kavanagh and Rich point fingers at politicians and government representatives, including federal agencies, Congress, state and local executives and legislative bodies who have a stake in spinning information to the point where it is hard to separate fact from fiction. International spokesmen and women blur the line between opinion and fact adding their influence to the blending of personal experience and opinion and making it appear more important than fact.

Television News Creates a Mixture

Think about television programs hosted by Rachel Maddow, and Sean Hannity, where there is a mixture of facts and opinions without clear lines separating one from the other. The sheer volume of information from television, social media, online news magazines and bloggers creates a hodgepodge of information that is exhausting to digest, let alone separate fact from opinions, lies and BS.

Even Children are Confused

A 2016 Stanford study of middle-school students found that they were generally unable to distinguish the credibility of online information, separating true stories from fake news. They were also unable to differentiate advertisements and sponsored content or to evaluate the bias of an information source when determining whether a statement was fact or opinion.

Rand is Hopeful

The Rand research/report is hopeful that through investigative reporting the information environment has the potential for improvement. They also suggest that a better use of data and changes in government policy will encourage an increase in accountability and transparency. They also recommend the need to change the channels of communication for data and facts – presenting the data in a non-threatening way and a “heads up” system, alerting consumers that the information they are reading or hearing may be manipulated or fake.

Public Relations – Is it the Truth?

According to Mark Weiner, Chief Insights Officer, Cision and CEO, Prime Research Americas, public relations is about truth and fact. In a study published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, PR professionals are tasked with the responsibility of championing the truth for the benefit of the organization. It is the PR focus on truth and transparency that makes the profession an important part of the c-suite.

According to Anthony D’Angelo, Professor of Practice in Public Relations, Syracuse University, “We won’t lie or mislead. We play fair…we don’t do anything that we wouldn’t want to have widely reported by the news media.” PR professionals are responsible for building trust with clients, employers and the news media.

According to Leslie Gottlieb, President NY Chapter, PRSA, “Now it is more essential than ever that our profession upholds our core principles and our obligation to serve the public interest.”

Program. Truth on Trial: The Role of Truth in Today’s Society

Truth on trial

Truth on trial

Truth on trial

Moderator, Emmanuel Tchividjian, The Markus Gabriel Group; Past President and Ethics Officer, PRSA-NY

Truth on trial

Dr. Andrea Bonime-Blanc, Esq., CEO, Founder, GEC Risk Advisory; NACD Board Leadership Fellow; Author, Gloom to Boom: How Leaders Transform Risk into Resilience and Value & James E. Lukaszewski, President, Lukaszewski Group Division, Risdall Marketing Group; Author, The Decency Code; Member, Rowan University Public Relations Hall of Fame

Truth on trial

T.J. Elliott, Knowledge Broker, Educational Testing Service; Co-Author, Decision DNA; former faculty member, NYU, Mercy College and Columbia University & Michael Schubert, Chief Innovation Officer, Ruder Finn – representing Navartis, Pfizer, Citi, Pepsi Co,  Mondelez, the White House and the United Nations

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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About the author

Dr. Elinor Garely - special to eTN and editor in chief,