For the past 40 years, I would have expected to answer this question in this one sentence: “All audiences have a reasonable expectation that an organization is responsible for the facts it puts into the public domain.” For clarity, I might have added: “Expect facts to be questioned, and those that cannot be proven may need to be corrected. If you routinely present or defend false information, or do so at a crucial moment, you will harm your reputation.” For most of us, and our clients, that would have been the end of the discussion.
But some would say it is not that simple anymore. The proliferation of misleading or outright false information, disseminated mainly through digital media, seems to have given many people and organizations license to make facts optional and the truth fungible. Even basic assumptions widely accepted within the scientific community are up for political grabs. Corporate and brand managers, and institutional leaders of all kinds can’t be blamed for questioning whether the essential rules of communications have changed.
So it falls to us as professional communicators to break this down and examine the question. (While the context of concern about fake news and alternative facts is not exclusively American, and many of us operate internationally, I am based in the US, so I will answer from a US perspective.)
Truth and consequences in persuasion
One reason this question seldom came up in the past was the periodic presentation of real-life evidence. We’ve all known a few individuals or organizations that decided to stretch the truth—on product claims, corporate earnings, professional credentials, circumstances of a crisis, endorsements from influencers, etc. And eventually, they were almost all discovered. And embarrassed, or worse. (As the reputation management maxim goes, time wounds all heels.)
Recent events cast doubt on this fundamental idea. Some now question whether that outcome is reliable. Should organizations take off the handcuffs of veracity and say whatever they wish to be true? Although we can reasonably advise any client that telling the truth still matters to their reputation, how is that going to be enforced? Especially when the untruth breaks no law or disclosure rule, or other regulation, why bother with the facts?
In times of uncertainty, we have to look at the foundation of the ideas we question. This is where we can divide the topic into two components—the concept of responsibility and the definition of facts, or truth. (We can leave aside the last element of the above question: “…in the public domain.” Everything should be assumed to be in the public domain. Ask those whose emails have been hacked. And, from a reputation point of view, failing to take responsibility for facts in private is no different from failing to do so in public. Only the scale differs.)
Now, and in the past, some institutions have attempted to avoid responsibility with the assertion that lying or exaggerating is okay because it’s the responsibility of others to verify facts (the caveat emptor approach). They may escape some forms of responsibility, but organizations that take this approach generally fail to maintain good reputations. For our purposes, we assume organizations and individuals care about reputation.
These attempted exceptions have proven a central idea of reputation management. That is, your credibility and repeated access to your audience is earned by being provably truthful. This is why frequent liars work so hard to say they are telling the truth. If you violate the expectation of your audience that you will be truthful, you create the expectation that you will lie in the future. In that way, if not others, you—as a person, institution, or organization, are responsible for what you say and its impact on others.
This puts pressure on the second element: what constitutes a fact or truth? And in our business context, what is the meaning of being factual or truthful when we attempt to persuade an audience to engage, act, or advocate in favor of the originating organization?
Of course, whole books of philosophy and neuroscience have been written on reality, truth, factual perception, and similar topics. From Confucius and Plato to behavioral economists, there is a lifetime’s worth of theories to consider. (Here is a good, fast summary on the history of doubt about truth, and reasons to be confident that we can deal with distortions, courtesy of Stratfor contributor Jay Ogilvy.)
The intersection of facts and responsibility is complex. Those of us who counsel clients can navigate, at least in part, by experience. In a workmanlike way, we can reverse-engineer this question a bit by starting with the outcome, when facts and responsibility are applied in pursuit of persuasion. We generally call that outcome reputation.
Reputation, facts, and responsibility for truth
Reputation exists. We can measure it. We can see the impact when it is damaged. The understanding of reputation may be inborn or learned, but it is a capacity of all people. It’s as old as human relationships. We, who work with those who wish to persuade, know that reputation is both a starting point and an outcome of persuasion.
While opinion has never been in short supply, ultimately facts are the crucial factor in lasting persuasion. The idea that persuasion depends on facts has been around for a very long time, by all accounts. Even in the short history of American popular culture, the jury in most courtroom dramas is persuaded at the ultimate moment by a fact–an unassailably accurate piece of information that pushes them to a clear decision. A criminal is convicted. A defendant is exonerated. We know that facts are persuasive, and essential to reputation.
Of course, the court of public opinion isn’t always clear cut, and the formalities of the judicial system don’t apply to editorial pages, or the town square (real or virtual). Even if facts later turn out to be disproved—and consequences ensue—there is no doubt that the initial perception of factuality is important to both persuasion and reputation.
Where do those consequences come from, outside the courtroom? Just as it has been a central tenet of public relations that audiences expect facts from organizations, we have accepted the corollary—that the professional media will act in the public interest to enforce the expectation of truthfulness. (For that reason alone, despite current commercial concerns, we can expect the objective, professional media to be resurgent. If they didn’t exist, we would no doubt invent them again to manage our collective risk.)
In the past, the media didn’t just treat this as an outward-facing watchdog role. The best media applied this expectation to themselves. In the days of manual typewriters and unfiltered cigarettes in the newsroom, Edward R. Murrow said:
“To be persuasive we must be believable. To be believable we must be credible. To be credible we must be truthful.”
Although he wouldn’t recognize the expression, “mic drop,” we could stop there, now and forever. But the economic or commercial challenges of the professional media today mean we cannot, for now, fully depend on the fact-checks and balances that our society expected from the media for so long.
Some people would like “the people” to own the right of fact checking, truth squad-ing, and ultimately, deciding what is reality. Their feeling is, let us duke it out in the comments section, or practice unverified, fifth-estate citizen journalism. Institutions and organizations of all kinds would likely be losers as often as winners if that environment became the only forum. Ultimately self-interest would call for standards—the same standards of objectivity we used to expect, that created professional journalism.
For now, there is a risk that every institution that doesn’t like its facts will feel it can use the temporary confusion to sidestep the responsibility for truth and factual accuracy. To address that, let’s go back a little further than Mr. Murrow.
In America, despite several cycles of serious detours, the people, and those who represent them, generally right the ship of factual responsibility over time. For the sake of space, let’s skip over the multitude of examples of “we the people” self-correcting received facts and beliefs. These include many now-recognized wrongs that that took far too long to correct, but were once accepted, like repression of native peoples, the institution of slavery, burning of witches, child labor, women as property of their husbands, Japanese American internment camps, and the assertion that smoking is good for your lungs. In the end, America corrected these “facts of life.”
We can say with some certainty that, by whatever means, verification will ultimately take place whenever an institution or organization presents information as true. It would be a very unsafe assumption, with little to no precedent, to advise an organization that they can get away with factual inaccuracy for long. An audience or an arbiter will step forward, possibly driven by self-interest, or maybe by principle. It might take a long time—much too long in the examples above—but there will be a reckoning. For the fabricators, truth stretchers, and liars, the outcome will be damaged reputation, at least. Fast or slow, the balance returns to verifiable facts, and public judgment is rendered.
Is truth irrelevant?
However, even if we can say that there ultimately is responsibility and consequence, that leaves the second part of the question. Is there even such a thing as a “fact” anymore? Are we post truth? Is the idea of something being “true” now irrelevant?
When it comes to relevance, in America, it is a good idea to consult the fundamental documents on which our society is built. While interpretation may be controversial, there can’t be too much controversy around the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are among the most basic guides to public discourse (even when that descends to yelling and screaming) in this country. Our social compact and rule of law are based on them. So they should influence the communications of any organization in America today.
What do these texts say about truth and facts? By my count, the word truth is not in the Constitution of the United States, and the word “fact” appears only twice, but in a technical way, in relation to the role of the courts. (See Article 3 and Article 7, original-intent fans.)
Going back further, the word “truth” or true, does appear in the US Declaration of Independence, twice. And it’s quite instructive. Many of you will be familiar with the opening line “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” So, right there we have the idea of truth being verified, and some truths being so clear that they require no further evidence. I wouldn’t recommend building a communications program around that idea, but it’s good to know that the original foundation of America recognized the idea of one-dimensional truth. There’s no mention of alternative facts.
The word fact is also used in the Declaration of Independence. It is even capitalized. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” Twenty-seven examples follow, of which almost all are more general, and more based on opinion, than most proof points any of us would provide for key messages today. A little quantification would help. Maybe an infographic and some third-party validation. But times were different then. (They didn’t have the advantage of professional communicators—still they did a pretty good job.)
We are, it appears, a nation based on truth and fact, in service of persuasion. Although that would be enough, we live in the present, and so we have an advantage over our forefathers. We have the scientific method.
A January 27 Scientific American blog considers “how science can guide the search for ‘actual’ truth in our post-truth era.” The authors state:
“Even if our senses cannot fully grasp the world around us, there are precise rules to the game of obtaining unbiased knowledge, and ways of measuring objective reality. Here’s how the scientific method, and the science of illusion, can help:
Rule #1: We cannot ascertain what’s true, but we can establish what’s false.
Rule #2: High confidence does not equal objective proof.
Rule #3: Perception depends on perspective, but subjectivity is not a measure of reality.”
The whole article is relevant and worth reading, but for those of us who consult on public relationships, the best guide is Rule 1. We and our clients may have philosophical and cultural barriers when we debate what truth is, but we can make sure that before something is communicated as a fact, it cannot be readily disproven.
That is a pretty minimum standard, but it is clear. As consultants, we are not in a position to play Sherlock Holmes with every piece of information our clients present. We can however make sure that due consideration has been given to the question: can this information be established as false? In other words: Is it accurate?
That has always mattered and still matters. Our code of ethics says:
We are committed to accuracy. In communicating with the public and media, member firms will maintain total accuracy and truthfulness. To preserve both the reality and perception of professional integrity, information that is found to be misleading or erroneous will be promptly corrected and the sources of communications and sponsors of activities will not be concealed.
Organizations and those in public relations firms who represent them, have a responsibility to respect facts and truth, and make their best attempts to disprove or verify the information they communicate. We also have history on our side. The idea of self-evident truth created this country. And today, science gives us a modern framework to apply, so we can establish a measure of accuracy, and add undisputed facts as an ingredient for successful communications.
It comes down to each of us. To me, in what I do every day, this is still simple. If someone suggests that the truth is what they want it to be, and that issuing the facts as they prefer them is okay, I know they are going to harm their reputation. I will not help them do it. I hope you won’t either.
Peter Verrengia is President and Senior Partner of Communications Consulting Worldwide (CCW), a unit of FleishmanHillard. You can reach him at Peter.Verrengia@fleishman.com.
This blog was originally published on The PR Council website for a new blog series on ethics issues.