Disclosure is necessary to restore public trust

Revelations in a New York Times article this week on the backdoor operations of a political front group called the American Future Fund have once again elicited the public's ire.

Revelations in a New York Times article this week on the backdoor operations of a political front group called the American Future Fund have once again elicited the public's ire.

The article raised fundamental issues about a lack of transparency and honesty in political messaging.

The Times article includes several disconcerting facts regarding how political front groups operate. Lacking full disclosure of donors' identity or of the motivating factors behind specific attacks and messaging, these groups represent an insidious attack on the public's trust.

The core issue regarding front groups is not the legality of these organizations — both Congress and the Supreme Court permit their existence — but rather, the ethical implications they pose.

Open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society. Without it, the foundation upon which our society and our profession is built — the free flow of accurate and truthful information — will be tarnished.

Wrapping themselves around a cloak of anonymity may work for front groups while they have the law on their side, but in the court of public opinion and trust, it is becoming increasingly clear their tactics are diminishing Americans' trust in politicians. According to a January 2010 Rasmussen Reports poll, more than 70% of Americans place more trust in fellow citizens than they do in politicians and the organizations backing and supporting those politicians.

While politicians have rarely — if ever — held much in the way of American's trust, these numbers are a clear indication that political messaging and advertising needs to be cleaned up. And associating with a political front group aimed at usurping open and honest communications with the public is a step in the wrong direction.  

As PR practitioners, we owe it to our profession, our clients, and our employers to take a stand against front groups and only allow our work to be associated with organizations that openly disclose the true motivations and benefactors behind their efforts.

Whether Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, or anything in between, PR professionals in all industries should strive to uphold ethical standards. Only truth and full disclosure can restore historically low trust in politicians, and most front groups are severely lacking in both.

Gary McCormick is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

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