Image for Analysis: Advocacy Should Be Truth-Telling
Telling the truth should be the standard for advocacy of all kinds.

Telling the Truth Should be the Standard, Not the Exception in Advocacy

A recent article published by Axios said everyone deserves representation in a court of law but wondered whether everyone is entitled to public relations counsel in the court of public opinion.

The question became more than theoretical when a major PR firm agreed to a $350 million settlement and a consulting firm consented to pay $573 million for their respective roles in promoting OxyContin on behalf of Purdue Pharma.

The penalties underscore a widely held perception that public relations and public affairs professionals are in the business of spinning the truth.

‘There are no gray areas in PR and public affairs.
Trimming the truth is a lie, not a color.

The Roots of Professional PR
Public relations as a profession began in 1919 when Edward Bernays developed techniques to sell soap and justify government coups. The nephew of Sigmund Freud figured out how to mix old-school propaganda with human emotions for profit. His techniques have been honed, boosted by technological advances and are still used – and misused – today.

To address ethical concerns, PR professionals who belong to the Public Relations Society of America pledge professional conduct with “truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.” Lobbyists who belong to the Oregon Capitol Club agree to conduct themselves with “the highest levels of integrity and professional responsibility.” That includes correcting mistakes and misstatements, despite the embarrassment of admitting being wrong.

Pledging honorable behavior isn’t the same as behaving honorably. There are always practitioners who play close to the edge.

PR and public affairs firms are free to represent or not represent clients. For example, CFM has declined to work for the tobacco industry or gun manufacturers. Axios quoted an agency leader that reflects our views: “We pick our clients very carefully because you end up wearing them.”

However, an agency’s mettle is better assessed by what clients it will represent rather than those it won’t. Some agency owners believe every client deserves to tell its story. Other agency owners believe there is a difference between telling a story and telling a lie.

Firms make decisions on whether to represent clients for more reasons than collecting big fees. Some firms only work for clients if their staffs consent to do the work. Larger firms with high overhead may be less selective if a client promises a big retainer. Firms with a larger percentage of young professionals may be influenced by their values in making decisions of what clients to take on.

The Truth-Telling Test
Who you represent may not be the right test of what you represent. The test that counts is whether you tell the truth, even if it’s not convenient or flattering. Fossil fuel companies that deny their product’s impact on global warming aren’t telling the truth. Natural gas companies that say they represent a bridge from fossil fuels to cleaner energy are being more truthful.

The real measure of truthfulness is whether the actions of companies match their stories, whether their ads square with their advocacy. Saying one thing while doing another is just another form of disinformation.

The real grit of a PR or public affairs professional is demonstrated outside the public eye in a truth-to-power confrontation with clients. If there is magic in PR and public affairs, it is the power to persuade a big-time client that their spiel is unbelievable and their course is suicidal. Telling that truth to power can cost you a client. In the long run, it’s worth the price.

It may be convenient to talk about gray areas in communication. In reality, there are no gray areas in PR and public affairs. Trimming the truth is a lie, not a color.

This is not to say PR and public affairs professionals must fall in love with the causes of their clients. All that’s necessary is a belief in basic honesty. Clients can be credible, but not correct. They may feel wronged, but not be right. They may not be righteous, but they aren’t evil.

Potato chips may be the perfect example. The chips won’t kill people, but the calories they contain could fatten their waistlines. It’s a product many people want even if they though don’t need it. It’s a consumer choice, not a consumer con.

“Believability converts to trust through the constant practice
of factual and ethical PR and public affairs.”

The Advocacy Test

The truest test of a PR or public affairs professional is how honest they are with their client behind closed doors – sometimes before they are hired. Do they tell them straight up their approach is wrong and their attitude is counterproductive? Do they offer a more credible argument and valid solution? Do they have the courage to call out lies, threats and intimidation as a strategy?

When a client interviews a PR or public affairs agency, they should find out whether they will fall in line or call your bluff, whether they will call BS on bad arguments and recommend more honest alternatives.

If you want what CFM refers to as “principled advocacy”, you must accept advocacy based on facts, logical conclusions and credible presentations. Fudging the truth won’t work. Once you surrender to lies, you are a liar. Your trust quotient drops to below zero.

One of the best yardsticks of telling the truth is ironically being able to tell your opposition’s story more accurately than your opponent can. If you can tell their story better than they can, you gain the credibility to reveal the flaws in their story.

Believability converts to trust through the constant practice of factual and ethical PR and public affairs. Unbelievability likewise converts to distrust through a frequency of trimming the truth and ethical lapses.

Telling the truth is habit-forming. So is lying or hedging the truth. Advocacy can be noble through honesty. It can be ignoble by ignoring the truth. Regrettably, advocacy and honesty aren’t always synonymous.