Bowen: White lies have dark consequences

Even the white lie, intended to cause no real harm, can damage the credibility of the PR profession, says University of South Carolina's Shannon Bowen.

Have you ever considered telling someone you responded to a reporter before deadline, but your quote wasn’t used, when you actually missed the call? Or perhaps you told a client that results of your recent study were a little more favorable than the numbers actually suggested, keeping things "positive" while you correct the damage? It seems like these statements could do no real harm. What does it hurt to tell a little "white lie" to a client or CEO? I’ll tell you.

To start, it’s important to note this issue has existed in the PR industry for some time. In 2008, the Journal of Employee Communication Management published research indicating that 65% of PR pros reported telling a lie "occasionally" in order to keep their jobs. Going back to 2000, a PRWeek study – later cited by The New York Times – reported that 25% of PR pros admitted to having lied in their job; 39% had exaggerated in the course of their work; 62% conceded they were not always able to check the validity of the information they imparted; and 44% felt uncertain about the ethics of a task. Even the white lie, intended to cause no real harm, can damage the credibility of the PR profession and individual PR pros suffer. Lies erode trust.

Going further down that road, the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer shows the lowest trust rating in both business and government sectors in its 14-year history, although business is consistently trusted more than government. Clearly, we have a truth-telling crisis at hand. The PR industry is a business itself, but we consistently work for both business and government, both as strategic communications managers and the people who deliver the message. If trust in government and business is historically low, is PR at least partially to blame?

Findings from this year’s Trust Barometer on the top-five behaviors likely to decrease perceptions of ethics in business shed some light on that question. If companies use unethical business practices*, fail to keep information secure*, fail to show responsibility during a crisis*, use substandard working conditions, or misrepresent the company*, perceptions of integrity are decreased and willingness to engage in doing business with the offender is usually decreased. PR is directly involved in the above practices that are marked with an asterisk. We are part of the trust problem.

Based on that evidence, it seems that no lie, however small, is a white lie. Management depends on PR to create trust among publics and a reputation that can help organizations grow, reach their goals, or meet the needs of publics. Telling the occasional white lie – whether out of pressure, fear, or obligation – doesn’t serve the industry or a particular individual’s longer-term career.

Perhaps it is better to be the outspoken advocate of honesty, even when that truth hurts? A small group of ethics philosophers advocate the "radical honesty" tradition: tell the truth at all costs without regard for the consequence, but only with regard for veracity. Those folks maintain that the credibility gained from using a radically honest approach makes up for the strained relations or socially awkward situations that such radical honesty can cause. An interesting idea when applied to PR, isn’t it?

Eschewing the white lie, exaggeration, or "spin" still plaguing some in PR may provide uncomfortable situations. However, doing so might increase our credibility, not to mention ability, to counsel management on matters of ethics.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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