PR industry condemns 'alternative facts' concept

Senior communicators emphasized how dangerous it is for PR pros to peddle half truths and embrace dubious concepts in their practice such as Kellyanne Conway's alternative facts.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer went some way to redeeming himself in Monday presser.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer went some way to redeeming himself in Monday presser.

WASHINGTON, DC: PR pros condemned claims made by the Trump Administration in its first full day in office for diminishing the credibility of their profession, maligning its integrity, and fraying its relationship with the press.

Some industry insiders suggested the truculent tone set by White House press secretary and communications director Sean Spicer at Saturday’s press conference could make his position untenable.

"If he doesn’t change his posture, Spicer has a decision," said Chris Allieri, founder and principal of Mulberry & Astor. "He either continues to be a mouthpiece for the president, even if it is wrong information - or he resigns with principles."

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, followed up with her own term on Sunday’s NBC Meet the Press show to describe Spicer’s claim that more people gathered on the National Mall for Trump’s inauguration than for any other president: "alternative facts".

However, Spicer followed-up Saturday’s pugnacious performance on Monday with a 75-minute presser that, some observed, returned a sense of calm to the White House’s relationship with the media.

Alarm bells rang for Jerry Swerling, PR management consultant, when he heard Conway coin "alternative facts." He voiced his distress by calling it a "slippery slope," saying it threatens society and PR industry values and caused him to react "viscerally" as both a citizen and comms practitioner.

"To trivialize, as Conway was trying to do, you’re trivializing the importance of truth," Swerling said. "What you’ve really done is create the ultimate Big Lie about truth itself. If you repeat it often enough, the truth isn’t that important, the facts aren’t that important."

"Also, these folks are practitioners in our field as strategic communicators," Swerling added. "They represent and speak for our field. I hope this week comms classes and programs drop what they were going to do and talk about alternative facts. I hope professional organizations change the topics of their next meeting to talk about it. This is the heart of what we do."

During one section of Monday’s presser, Spicer told reporters: "Sometimes we can disagree with the facts. Our intention is to never lie to you."

"I would cringe if a client said that," Allieri said.

After Spicer’s Monday press conference, Swerling added via email he was "glad to see the emphasis on truth-telling and conciliation in today’s news conference," which was also the most telling quote for Allieri.

"Liar" is the worst thing you can call a PR pro, says Sean Garrett, former CCO at Twitter and co-founder and partner of The Pramana Collective.

"It means you have no credibility or integrity," he added. "People assume the industry is about spin and obfuscation, that PR at its worst is professional lying. At the top of the business are people who never do that and that’s why they’re employed.

"Spicer’s comments reflect those worst assumptions. I hope some industry leaders point out this kind of behavior and style — lying in particular — would not be acceptable in their organizations and they couldn’t see themselves hiring someone like that."

Asked if he would hire Spicer, Garrett said the embattled press secretary would have to explain himself and demonstrate his credibility through actions, adding, "Not lying would be a good first step."

Following Monday’s effort, Garrett added: "’Version two’ was better in that he [Spicer] was factually inaccurate on several discussed items, but didn't seemingly outright lie intentionally. His demeanor and tone improved, too. Hopefully, things improve further. But, there is plenty of reason for skepticism."

GE’s former comms head Gary Sheffer said the Trump Administration picked a fight over something "quite petty" with "demonstrably untrue" evidence. He believes the posture Spicer adopted builds off President Trump’s war with the media (on Saturday he dubbed them "among the worst human beings on earth") and props up the administration as the only authoritative source of information.

Over the weekend, Sheffer wrote about his own encounters dealing with management who might be hostile to the press in a blog called "A War You Will Not Win."

"If someone ever asked me to lie on the job at GE, and no one ever did, I wouldn’t stay at that job," Sheffer told PRWeek. "When people make mistakes from an important podium, which are clearly highly discountable, or suggest there’s such a thing as ‘alternative facts’, it undercuts their credibility and doesn’t help the person they work for."

Sheffer was pleased to see Spicer’s commitment Monday not to lie to the media and said: "We should trust him at this very early point to live up to that pledge."

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