Cronkite's mantra has never been more important

PRWeek Hall of Famer and former J&J corporate VP says the search for truth in a media environment characterized by disintermediation and fake news is a bellwether for all communicators.

Walter Cronkite's "voice of truth" is much missed in today's febrile media environment.

"And that’s the way it is." 

If you remember that television news network signoff, keep reading. If you don’t, do a Google search for Walter Cronkite, and then come back.

As a lifelong newsman, Cronkite became "the voice of truth" for millions from 1962, when he helped launch CBS Evening News, until he retired in 1981.

Although we can’t vouch for every "truth" uttered from his nightly podium, Cronkite’s popularity and trustworthiness grew through the troubled era of Vietnam and Watergate because he represented a "voice of reason," influencing the perceptions of three generations of Americans over nearly two decades.

We lost him in 2009, but as we look across today’s "post-truth" news and social media landscape one wonders what he would have thought and what he would have said, or possibly Tweeted.

"And that’s the way it is" is an assertion that may not hold up well today in the face of organizations such as Disinfomedia and the more than 100 fake news sites that have been identified on Facebook and elsewhere.

Which way is it, exactly?

Add to that the consternation and soul-searching of mainstream media over the fact that, through an "unbelievable" election campaign, they didn’t hear, nor did they adequately or accurately report, the beliefs and reality of so many who feel excluded – on the left and the right.

What to do in the midst of this communications cacophony is a monumental challenge confronting everyone involved in public communications – PR, corporate communications, marketing, advertising, journalism, and the media, in all its forms.

"Truth," as in "the whole truth," is under significant challenge and difficult to discern. Trusted sources are few and far between.

Clearly, there isn’t an easy answer. Just as clearly, the answer is ahead of us. We can’t go back.

But, as we struggle for reason, transparency, fairness, trusted sources of truth, and a way forward, it’s helpful to reflect on the contributions and high standards held by practitioners in all facets of communication whose careers were rooted in a fundamental commitment to truth and integrity in public communications - people devoted to the belief the public has a right to know, and to the ideal that communicating in a free society is a privilege and not to be taken lightly or corrupted.

Toward this end, the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication’s launch of an annual program to recognize integrity in communications is timely. The program will launch at a first annual event on February 22 in New York City, before which first-year honorees will be announced.

The center’s objective is to recognize and celebrate individuals from the fields of PR, journalism, and other communications disciplines whose work meets the highest professional and ethical standards. Annual recipients will be selected from case studies developed by research scholars working through the center.

The Arthur W. Page Center, located at the College of Communication at Penn State University, was created and endowed by Larry Foster, who was chief PR officer at Johnson & Johnson for 33 years following his early work in journalism.

Foster, in retirement, carried a conviction that the highest ethical standards ought to apply to anyone engaged in public communications - hence the creation of the center.

"And that’s the way it is" should be the irrefutable standard of truth for all who take on the responsibility of communicating with the public.

Bill Nielsen is chairman of the advisory board of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication.

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