The whole truth and nothing but the truth: in media and PR

Remember that hilarious movie, "Something's Gotta Give," starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton?

Remember that hilarious movie, "Something's Gotta Give," starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton?

He plays an overage playboy and record company whiz by the name of Harry Sanborn who stumbles into a one-night affair at the Southhampton home of his girlfriend’s mother and “possible” soulmate, a successful playwright played by Keaton, known as Erica Barry.

One scene finds them days later accidentally meeting at a Big Apple dining spot, with Erica horrified to find Harry at a table with a beautiful young blond. As she runs outside onto the street feeling betrayed and in a state of anguish, she exasperatingly confesses her love for him. The conversation turns to “truth.” He declares, “I have never lied to you. I have always told you some version of the truth.” To which Erica replies, “The truth doesn't have versions, okay?”

Or does it? Is the “truth” the communication and comprehension of facts and events as we see them? Is it the objective reporting of what is seen, as journalists are obliged to do? Or is the “truth” not only what is seen as observable and confirmable, but does it in addition include the underlying motivations of what drive facts and events? “The whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

During the Vietnam War, when day in and day out the events of the war were reported to us on the nightly network newscasts, what about the underside of these events? What about the much-hailed “Domino Theory” as being the raison-d’etre for the war? As the theory went, LBJ went to war to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Communists, and to keep other surrounding countries from doing the same. 

What kind of integrity is it to base foreign policy on a game of dominos? Yet, to the degree that a games theory drove a war, was the reporting of that war, without the sufficient reporting or challenging of its underlying motives, a communication of “the truth?” Or did the “truth” have versions depending upon whether you were looking at external events, or their cause? Wasn’t the media responsible for more in-depth reporting of the “whole truth?” Wasn’t it responsible for challenging what seemed to some to have been specious reasoning?

Now in Iraq, the U.S. initiated a war with a country that had not attacked us, based on a preemptive policy designed to thwart possible future attacks by those countries who don’t like us. Sounds a little bit like that movie, “Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise, doesn’t it? Remember? Tom Cruise belonged to a futuristic police department that apprehended “potential criminals,” relying on crimes “about to happen” predicted by psychics lying in a pool of water.

And what about the people who did attack us? Al-Qaeda. Doesn’t it seem strange to some that its leader, Osama Bin Laden, has not yet been captured after all these years post 9-11? Is it possible that 9-11 was the excuse to attack Iraq? That the American people were manipulated out of their sense of patriotism and love of country, to too easily buy into attacking anybody that didn’t like us? 

Remember the “surface” excuse of the Administration? WMD – weapons of mass destruction. That was false. Iraq didn’t have them. There was sufficient evidence to show that Iraq viewed Al Qaeda with disdain; and that it was an enemy of Iran. What became the rhetoric and justification of the Administration was based on faulty evidence and on patriotic appeals. Yet the barrage by the Administration, using WMD, patriotism, love and survival of country as the reasons for going to war in Iraq worked. Though now without the WMD excuse, the patriotism factor works less well.

And the real reason for going to Iraq? Oil? An end to “nuisance” governments who don’t like us? A vision of American dominance in the Middle East? If any of those are true, why wasn’t any of that communicated to the American people? One other excuse given was to free people – to establish democracies in non-democratic countries. But was that the truth? If so, why didn’t we overthrow the Sudanese government that has been committing or allowing genocide for years?

So here, beyond the “truth” having versions, there have also been lies. And when there are lies, or when there are “versions” of the truth, we clearly aren’t getting the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth – whether the communication emanates from our government, or through the media relaying external facts and events, but at times underreporting the motives and truth behind events.

Somehow, we’ve been subject to an obfuscation of the truth based on appeals to our patriotism and the survival of our democracy. This Administration has been masterful at this kind of manipulation. What about the media? Has any “underreporting” and a meek willingness, for too long a time, to challenge the Administration about the truth, reflected its failure to its Fourth Estate responsibilities? When did the media vigorously challenge the probable overarching cause of the war – a new policy based on the right of preemption?

In a democracy, the people are entitled to more. How else can intelligent decisions be made, especially when it comes time to pulling the switches in the voting booth?

Recently, a young man was interviewed on CNN about what he and other young people would be looking for in the responses of presidential candidates on a YOU-TUBE debate. He responded, “One word – authenticity.”

People want authenticity. The truth. It’s the truth that is needed for a democratic electorate to make intelligent decisions.  It’s the truth that is needed for a consuming public to understand the truth of the products and services that are arrayed before them in the marketplace. It’s the truth that is required for donors to make effective decisions about the charities that appeal to them for money.

The media has a solemn responsibility to do their best to report the truth – the truth of facts and events as they happen, and to uncover the underlying truth of policymakers’ intentions and motivations that propel facts and events into being.

Truth in journalism is a standard sometimes actualized; but not always. It can become a “version of the truth” by not always reporting accurately enough, or deeply enough, on what lies behind facts and events in terms of what motivates decisions. It can also be guised as journalism, yet in actuality foster propaganda – as we know from so many of the talk show radio hosts who have a clear agenda of their own – often a neo-conservative agenda presented as truth by exploiting, for example, people’s sense of patriotism.

Moving from journalism to PR, public relations had its roots in those who were masters of creativity, but also of manipulation. That’s the truth too.

I believe that creativity and honesty can be mutually compatible bedfellows in public relations. This is not to say that public relations professionals aren’t advocates. Of course we are. We represent clients who’ve hired us to communicate their services, products, books or issues to the public through the media. To the extent that we represent clients with legitimate products and services that minimally don’t hurt anyone, and optimally are useful, we can help contribute to the public good. Gaining goodwill for our clients is our purpose. When we represent a stance on issues or information that enrich public understanding, we contribute to the public interest. 

If we practice our craft with the conscious intention to deceive, to manipulate public opinion with false or specious information, or unworthy products or services, we do not contribute to the public interest or welfare. Public relations then becomes something inauthentic, something not deserving of our respect.

When Edward Bernays, one of the fathers of public relations, wrote in his famous 1928 book Propaganda that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy, he was certainly arguing for an understanding of the truth of how social psychology worked, and the machinations of the human unconscious – but he was certainly NOT arguing the objective truth of “straight shooting” in communication based on facts. I also doubt if he was a big fan of the democratic process, which it seems to me must honor the inalienable rights of the individual as one who is entitled to make decisions based on a clear and centered understanding, either rationally or by intuition of the objective facts and of candidates’ and politicians’ stance on issues.

Bernays’ uncle was the great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.  From Freud he learned about the power of the unconscious – and formulated strategies designed to manipulate the unconscious.

I met Edward Bernays. It was in the late ‘80s when he was quite an elderly man, but still amazingly sharp, even brilliant. I hosted a show on WOR Radio in New York City called Mike Talk, which aired Sunday nights. It was clear to me that Mr. Bernays felt that manipulation was needed in society, to mold the irrational herd mentality that characterized it. 

"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Mr. Bernays wrote about this in his trailblazing books, Propaganda and Crystallizing Public Opinion, and in an essay entitled, “The Engineering of Consent.”

A favorite technique of his was to use third party experts to influence and establish credibility for his clients in indirect ways. To make the case for the promotion of bacon, he ran a survey of doctors who agreed that people needed to eat hearty breakfasts. He sent these results to five thousand doctors, along with information about bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast.

Edward Bernays did not view his manipulativeness as unethical. Just the contrary. He said that a public relations counsel “must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to (his clients) above his duty to society.”

He believed that the p.r. counsel must act for the common good of society. In Propaganda he wrote: “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Yet Bernays was depicted by some, like Marlen Pew, as the “Young Machiavelli of Our Time.” He was seen by others, however, as a genius in combining social science with psychology.

Interestingly, Mr. Bernays, who was Jewish, was horrified when he learned that the head of Nazi propaganda, Goebbels, had diligently absorbed and applied the content of books such as Propaganda and Crystallizing Public Opinion in Hitler’s campaign against the Jews.

I believe we’re in an age where a view of humanity as dark and “herd-like” should not govern public relations. While human nature has the capacity for both good and evil, and while humans can be persuaded by many forces, both conscious and unconscious, I believe we must take the high road by simply telling people the truth about the products, services and issues we represent. That presupposes that we are in good conscience representing nondeceptive, truthful clients.

This is not to exclude the use of creativity and creative techniques in communicating messages on behalf of our clients. But creativity should not be employed to manipulate through lies or deception. It should rather be used to energize and make more interesting the story we convey. 

My own view is that manipulating the darker forces of human nature is inappropriate. Instead, as public relations professionals dedicated to truth in communications, we must and can take the higher road. What is that road? Here are my Ten Commandments of Sane Public Relations Values:

1.  All human beings are intelligent. Create campaigns that honor this intelligence.

2.  Tell the truth. You can be creative and tell the truth. The two are not mutually exclusive.

3.  Appeal to people’s better instincts – to the “better angels” of our nature.

4.  Understand that we are one human family on this planet – and that among our highest values, all humans cherish: the air we breath, wholesome food on the table, comfortable living habitats, a good job with good wages, their children and the health and well-being of their children, a good education, love, respect, the ability to fulfill one’s unique potential, a sense of caring community, the right to be free as long as we are also responsible.

5.  Talk to people as you would want to be talked to yourself. Create messages and campaigns that help, support, inform and entertain people as you would wish to be helped, supported, informed and entertained yourself.

6.  Represent companies, organizations, associations, governments, authors and celebrities who operate legitimately, in the best interests of the public interest.

7.  Every human is entitled to basic human rights – the right to live without intolerance, persecution or control; the right to a decent living income; the right to be treated with respect; and the right to fulfill their dreams.

8.  Encourage your clients to support in spirit and actuality causes that uplift humanity: that alleviate poverty, that affirms human rights for all, that advocate a clean environment, that espouse reverence for life, that help children, that promote healthier lifestyles, that fight disease, that unite us rather than divide us, that promote education and literacy, that encourage creativity and the fulfillment of human potential.

9.  Represent life-affirming companies that make good and healthy products, that provide services in the public interest, that are ethical and honest.

10. Life is precious. Respect yourself, your neighbors, all other humans and the other life forms on our planet.  Don’t hurt anybody. If you know a potential client is manufacturing an inferior product, or rendering a faulty service, or promulgating an issue that is de facto or potentially harmful to people, don’t represent them. Period.

To those in our profession – or outside our profession – who say this is too naïve a view about the values necessary to support our business or conduct ourselves – I say, “You’re outmoded. Time to embrace these values and make public relations the honorable profession it can and should be.”

The world is converging through the miracle of technology. Let’s not let the human heart, or the human right for the whole truth, run behind. Is journalism performing its highest calling when it does not probe more deeply for the truth behind events or challenge questionable policies? And what good is public relations if it promotes inauthenticity and a world that doesn’t work?

Mike Schwager is a writer and veteran public relations/public affairs counselor, practitioner and media trainer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Websites:, and E-mail:


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