"Sure I lie, we are professional manipulators. That is what we do." "I am the one really pulling the strings."
Those were the words I heard from a PR practitioner and a CCO – both speaking under anonymity – in a report at the 23rd International Public Relations Research Symposium, BledCom, in Slovenia.
The University of Pretoria’s Ronel Rensburg produced a paper, "Lying to protect the organization: An occupational hazard?" which offered insights gleaned from top PR pros in South Africa in original qualitative interviews on the topics of lying and ethics in the industry.
The highly-placed executives, on conditions of anonymity, offered Rensburg, and the conference audience at BledCom staggeringly honest insights about the extent of lying to the media by PR practitioners. Of more than 20 interviewees, 17 admitted lying to the media on a regular basis; 16 said they would do it again. And we wonder why journalists don't trust PR sources, rate their ethics lower than that of journalists, and go around digging for other sources, more dirt, or even simple confirmation of facts?
It gets worse.
The audience of academics and some professionals in corporate communication audibly gasped as Rensburg delivered her next findings. "Of course I lie – I lie because my CEO expects it," said one executive. "I have to lie to cover my CEO's [butt]. If I don't lie and make it all look better, he and a lot of others will suffer. So I lie. A lot."
Many other sets of comments like these followed suit. One simply offered: "I manipulate the information I give to the journalist because they are also going to manipulate it."
One wonders about the ethics of all PR professionals when hearing such stunning – but common – sentiments.
A pall of shocked resignation fell over the conference session as Rensburg presented more damning evidence gleaned from her informants. Then, a moment of laughter came from the audience when Rensburg presented her most audacious set of comments from CCOs. "I lie every day because I am the one who really makes the decisions and runs this company."
Or, "I lie to the media and my staff, I even have to lie to the CEO because I know more than he does."
It is true that Rensburg's study is with a small sample of executives. Perhaps most comms executives don't think this way – maybe Rensburg got hold of a bunch of bad eggs. But, what if these PR pros, in their brutal honesty, revealed what many feared all along about the profession? Perhaps we aren't as far removed from those P.T. Barnum press agent days as we'd like to think.
These executives offered their comments under conditions of anonymity for good reason. However, they are highly ranking and arguably at the top of the profession in at least a handful of 20-or-so organizations. Many hold graduate degrees. And they are all at least familiar in passing with the standards of professional ethics expected in the sector.
It is interesting food for thought. How one defines lying is also of key import in the issue of ethics in PR. Is concealment lying? Omitting a crucial fact, or leaving out a seemingly unimportant part of a message?
How much do you lie? Or do you define your job as framing messages, or interpreting the information to fit a set strategy? These are key questions to address as communications strives for acceptance as a profession.
And these questions are even more vital when we define our jobs as building trusting relationships with the public, including the media. How we address these issues will define the future of the PR trade – or the profession.
Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.