It was Joe Haines, press secretary to then prime minister Harold Wilson, who famously said that PR people not only have to be economical with the truth, but sometimes ‘have to dispense with it altogether’.
Four decades later, the majority of delegates at PRWeek’s Ethics Debate seemed to agree.
After hearing Max Clifford and three other speakers debate the motion that ‘PR has a duty to tell the truth’, the audience of PR professionals and students delivered their verdict. It was close-run thing, but with 138 votes to 124, the majority were against the motion, agreeing with Clifford and PR lecturer Simon Goldsworthy that lying is sometimes necessary to achieve the greater good.
Peter Crumpler, director of comms at the Church of England, says he was ‘dismayed and disappointed’ by the result, adding: ‘This bodes very badly for the future of the PR industry.
Max’s extreme examples [see Against the Motion, below] do not make good general rules. Truth has to be the cornerstone of our industry if we are to have any credibility at all. If PROs cannot tell their management hard truths, no one can.’
Delegate Simon Cohen, founder of ethical PR agency Global Tolerance, also thought the result was ‘deeply worrying’ if it was reflective of the industry’s young blood: ‘I am concerned that young PROs are blissfully unaware of their power and responsibility. They have no excuse to complain about their lot if this is what they think.’
He adds: ‘Max Clifford’s world is one without consequences, where people can have affairs and as long as they’ve got enough money to buy a Max Clifford, they can get away with it. It’s disheartening that so many seem to aspire to this. It’s bad PR to say you’re in PR now.’
Cohen says the challenge for trade bodies such as the CIPR is to inspire members to act with ‘integrity and honesty’, as its Code of Conduct instructs.
CIPR president Lionel Zetter was also ‘very disappointed’ by the result, but says he has been inspired by the debate to accelerate plans to ‘reinvigorate’ the message that lack of integrity will not be tolerated.
What do you think? Below, PRWeek presents the arguments for and against Clifford’s motion. You can vote at firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR THE MOTION
George Pitcher Founder of Luther Pendragon and curate of St Bride’s, Fleet Street: ‘Don’t get me wrong. I realise that “truth” is a relative thing. As one former editor of The Observer once said, “there’s your truth, my truth, and then there’s the real truth”. Michael White, assistant editor at The Guardian, recently updated this with: “There’s your bullshit, my bullshit, and then there’s the real bullshit.”
‘But the serious point being talked about here is whether the world around us is artificial. My belief is that we all need to snap out of our artificial worlds and get into the real world.
‘PROs have to tell the truth, otherwise we continue living in our artificial lives.
The senior comms director...
Simon Lewis Group corporate affairs director, Vodafone: ‘My stance on this is pretty simple. PROs must tell it like it is. It’s what we’re paid to do, and it’s what the public and journalists expect. You have to remember that PR is about long-term relationships. A lie might work for tomorrow’s paper, but not for much longer.
‘Nowadays you have to get the news out, otherwise you’ll be reading it on someone else’s blog.
‘I was previously comms secretary to the Queen, at a time when the press were demanding details of the expense of every trip.
AGAINST THE MOTION
Simon Goldsworthy Senior lecturer in PR, Westminster University: ‘If BBC journalist Andrew Marr says we must all deviate from the truth every now and then – he says “a day of honesty would be enough to finish most of us” – then PROs must certainly do likewise.
‘Opposing the motion doesn’t have to mean that PR people must lie. Could you imagine a world where PROs spoke freely about every single worry affecting their company? Of course not. It would be a foolhardy PR professional who would say a client has big problems.
‘Remember, most journalists thrive on animosity. They are vermin gorging themselves on every scrap of sensational news. Are the headlines “they” write truthful? Not always. Our side – the PR side – is actually the most honest one.’
The famous pr man
Max Clifford Founder, Max Clifford Associates: ‘I’ve been telling lies on behalf of people, businessmen, politicians and countries for 40 years. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. I’d rather be honest, but I cannot be all the time. The only mantra I work to is that your duty is to your client. If I’m not comfortable lying, I won’t do it, but there will be plenty of other agencies lining up to take the business. All PROs at all levels lie through their teeth. I lie on behalf of a cross-dressing MP, a prominent businessman who is having an affair with a man, and a gay footballer. Always the aim is to keep their identity out of the press.
‘I’m proud I’ve been able to do it. There’s only been one footballer who was revealed to be gay, and he hanged himself. I know the ruin that will befall these people if news gets out. Here the truth is destructive – I lie because there is no choice.
|Click here to listen to Lionel Zetter talk more about this debate in this week's PRWeek/CTN podcast|