PR pros should heed Biden's call for truth

This is a moment for communicators to reexamine what truth means in our profession, says Jennifer Scott.

U.S. President United States Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden exit the east steps of the U.S. Capitol after the 59th Presidential Inauguration. (Photo by David Tulis - Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President United States Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden exit the east steps of the U.S. Capitol after the 59th Presidential Inauguration. (Photo by David Tulis - Pool/Getty Images)

In his inaugural speech today President Biden said; "...we face an attack on our democracy and on truth" and then challenged Americans to "reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured."

This was more than a reference to the 30,000-plus falsehoods his Oval Office predecessor told during his time in power, according to the Washington Post Fact Checker database. It was a call to renew our commitment to truth in our modern world and to refresh our conventions for sustaining it.

What do these words mean for those of us who make our living crafting stories? Stories that reach vast numbers of people, helping to shape their perspectives and their reality? What does truth mean to us as PR professionals today?

It seems that this is a question we are being challenged to ask ourselves anew, so we can refresh our appreciation for truth and its role in a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive democracy.

Is telling the truth the same as it's always been in PR, maintaining factual accuracy in what we say on behalf of our organizations and our clients? Or is it more than that in today's complex and technology-driven world when we have the massive (and sometimes covert) power and influence of social media at our disposal?

I would suggest that our industry needs to make a fresh commitment to understanding what truth means today and how we can maintain it in a more self-reflective and deliberate way.

For example: are we telling the truth when we fail to represent a diversity of lived realities in our stories? Are we telling the truth when we reinforce one-dimensional perspectives about the world? Are we being truthful when we choose platitudes over novelty or even discomfort?

Are we being truthful when we gloss over the gray zone between earned media and pay-for-play? Are we stepping up to the challenge of better regulating how we use social media platforms and technologies to target and influence consumers?

With inspiration provided by our new president, this is a moment for communicators to reexamine what truth means in our profession and restate our commitment to it.

When truth declines, so does trust. When trust declines, so does the fabric of our society and economy. Any short-term gains associated with avoiding this renewed scrutiny of the meaning and practice of truth will ultimately translate into long-term losses to us and our clients, and potentially to our society as a whole.

Jennifer Scott is a doctor of philosophy and a clinical assistant professor of PR and corporate communication at the New York University School of Professional Studies.

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