Saying it's 'for their own good' is a pathetic rationalization to justify lying to the public
A recent visitor to Defense Systems & Equipment International, the UK's largest trade show for military technology, could pass a booth operated by a firm called Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), which specializes in psychological warfare, public diplomacy (the stuff Karen Hughes is supposed to be in charge of now), and something called "influence operations."
Basically, what SCL seems to be good at, based on a report of its activities on Slate.com, is misinformation. In one scenario designed to showcase the firm's talents, a smallpox epidemic breaks out in London. The government wants to avoid a panic, which might cause people to flee the city, spreading the disease. So SCL warns people about a chemical accident, with toxic fumes headed toward the city. People are advised to stay inside to avoid exposure to the chemicals. The result, according to the company: only thousands die, rather than millions.
Under the circumstances, it seems almost churlish to question whether what SCL does is ethical. Certainly Mark Broughton, the company's public affairs director, sounds testy when asked if such activities are just propaganda. "If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that's going to save lives, that's fine," he tells Slate.
So let me be blunt: What SCL proposes is totally unethical.
In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant coined what he called the "categorical imperative," which suggested that people couldn't consider actions ethical unless they were ready to see those actions become a universal standard. So if everyone - every government, in this instance - deemed it OK to lie to people "for their own good," what would happen?
The first consequence is that faith in government would be completely and utterly destroyed. The SCL approach might work once - perhaps not even once, if the people in the infected city read either this article or the piece in Slate. But after that, there would be no reason to believe anything the government said. The next time a toxic cloud really was approaching the city, citizens would not only ignore the warning, but take it as an indication that they should flee the city. The result: Millions would die, rather than thousands that might be expected if people believed the authorities.
To be fair, SCL doesn't describe itself as a PR firm. However, the distance is not that great between what it proposes and what communicators in large corporations are saying when they refuse to release information to the public because they don't want to create a panic or risk an overreaction.
We don't tell people the truth because it's convenient in the short-term. We do so because credibility is a valuable societal commodity.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.