PR should be the (not fake) media's biggest ally in the era of alternative facts

The truth is under assault, and the media needs an ally. PR pros should step forward.

Remember the advertising jingle for Libby Foods? The TV spot with the music and lyrics that refrained, "Libby, Libby, Libby on the label, label, label. You will like it, like it, like it on your table, table, table."

The TV spot had a simple but effective consumer promise: you can trust any packaged-goods food product with the Libby label on it.

Funny thing about labels. We don’t just label consumer brands. We also label people and organizations. Our own profession, public relations, has had several labels over the years. Edward Bernays, the father of PR, first labeled it as the "engineering of consent." Other labels haven’t been as generous. We’ve been called "flacks" by our kissin’ cousins in the news media. Yes, even some of our friends and family playfully refer to us as "spin doctors."

Throughout my 36-year career, I’ve always believed our label—in other words, our promise to our employers and clients—is to be advocates for the truth. Not just advocating for an employer, a client, brand, or a cause, but going to bat for the rational understanding of and emotional belief in something—all with the purpose of willfully earning the trust of others.

There’s an assault on truth right now in America. Amassed at the front line of this assault is our current administration in Washington. There’s nothing new about authoritarian leaders wanting to concoct their own version of the story, twist the necks of the news media responsible for disseminating that story, and insist the public swallow their version of the story hook, line, and sinker. Never letting the facts get in the way of a story, propagandists have long been a tool of authoritarian regimes. As Americans, we’re just not used to such a bold, frontal assault armed with so many weapons of mass deception.

Before the fall of 2016, when did we ever hear so many derogative terms intended to discredit and cast as untrustworthy anyone or any organization that stands in the way of the administration’s agenda? These labels include:

"Alternative truths." Who would have thought there were so many versions of the truth? Silly me: I always believed there was either fact or fiction.

"Dishonest media." A label used to describe traditional media where editors insist that reporters source information and facts from credible individuals and organizations in search of the truth. The fraternity of dishonest media, according to our administration, includes The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and other long-standing, professional news gathering organizations that have the gall to question others’ facts, sources, and stories.

"Fake news." Anything reported by the dishonest media. Apparently, the only news you can trust originates from only one source and is laced with fact-free claims and hyperbole.

Emboldened by the assault on truth are nontraditional, fringe media with more interest in advancing their point of view than digging for facts and scrubbing the opinion out of their stories.

As PR professionals, this no time to hunker indoors, pull the shades, and hope this dark cloud blows over us. The best thing we can do is to affirm to one another and anyone and everyone we reach that the foundation of trust is cemented in the truth. The Arthur W. Page Society recently released its commitment to truth among its members.

The other resistance to propaganda is to offer our full and unconditional support to the print, broadcast, and online news media we’ve come to know and trust in our careers. Even though we took a different path following graduation from journalism school—shaping the news that others report versus reporting the news that others make—we are very much co-dependent upon one another. The labels of "dishonest media" and "fake news" are as much an assault on the public relations profession as the news industry.

I, for one, won’t stand by idly and be falsely labeled.

Doug Spong is founder and CEO of The Doug Spong Co. and works with Fahlgren Mortine in an of-counsel role. Previously, he was founder, president, and managing partner of Carmichael Lynch and Spong for 25 years.

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