Words matter: The case for credibility and trust in the age of fake news

Now more than ever, communications counselors must not avoid being the bearer of bad news.

The inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States was not only the beginning of a new administration in Washington, DC. It also ushered in an unprecedented shift in leadership communications strategy via the nation’s new chief executive officer.

In the early days of the new administration, news media, political commentators, and others refuted the veracity of comments from the president and others in the new administration on a variety of topics.

While misstatements are inevitable—and in many instances forgivable—knowingly relaying false or misleading information, obfuscating the truth, or intentionally making obscure statements only undermines credibility and erodes trust.

In response to unflattering media coverage, the president frequently characterizes select journalists and news organizations as "fake news" and "enemy of the American People." White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon was quoted in The New York Times referring to media as "the opposition party" that "should keep its mouth shut." While I believe fake news undermines journalism, disparaging legitimate journalists and news organizations for factual news coverage undermines our democracy.

As an alternative to more conventional methods of working with news media to communicate with the American public, the president, with millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook, opts to use social media without the "dishonest" press.

The president, like many executives, has a complex and exhaustive list of priorities. Chief among them are establishing trust and credibility at home and abroad and governing a nation divided in political ideology, diverse in socioeconomic makeup, priorities, interests, and more. The president and his advisers must know that to prolong an adversarial relationship with news media will likely hinder their ability to effectively communicate with constituents. Yet, the conflict continues.

To what extent does this new dynamic change leadership communications and our role as communications counselors?

Having worked in public relations and corporate communications for more than 30 years, I have frequently provided communications counsel to the most senior executives leading some of the most well-known and -respected brands in the world. Serving in this capacity, advising senior executives and board members—individuals who can terminate your tenure with or without cause—can be risky. Sharing unpleasant news or contradicting the boss can short-circuit a career. However, it has been my experience that most senior executives value honesty and rely heavily on trusted advisers to help them navigate the complex challenges and opportunities they face every day, including skeptical and persistent news media. 

Whether you serve as the chief communications officer, strategist, spokesperson, or in another surrogate role, your responsibility is to provide insightful, factual, timely, and relevant expertise, not placate your client or boss. It’s not always an easy task.

Veteran communications leaders rely on experience, diplomacy, and an array of strategic and tactical resources to provide value-added counsel. Early in my career, a mentor advised me that "communications is an art and a science."

While not every organization employs, relies on, or requires communications counsel, the potential benefits far outweigh the cost or risks. Engaging comms experts can help senior leaders achieve organizational objectives by providing strategic counsel to protect and promote a brand, drive organizational growth, and provide counsel to manage threats. As Mark Twain once said, "A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Trust, credibility, and integrity can take decades for any organization to establish. However, they can be lost in minutes, and may be impossible to reestablish if not properly protected and continuously nurtured.

From social media engagement to internal comms, interview prep, crisis and issues management, presentation planning, brand management, public affairs, and more, the goal is to convey insightful, timely, relevant, and factual information and counsel.

Given what is at stake for virtually every organization, communications advisers must resist the temptation to avoid being the bearer of unpleasant news, an unpopular opinion, or placating the boss. To establish and sustain trust, words matter. Our value as communications leaders depends on our ability to provide honest, relevant, and timely counsel. These principles apply whether you are advising clients, the CEO, or the president of the United States.

William Whitman Jr. is an independent marketing communications consultant and former corporate communications executive based in Washington, DC. Find him on Twitter at @bwhitman2.

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