Flacks. Spinmeisters. Yes-men (and women). That's how the outside world perceives public relations professionals. Outgoing White House Communications Hope Hicks did us no favors this week when she admitted in congressional testimony that she's told "white lies" on behalf of her boss, President Donald Trump. The next day she resigned.
But PR isn't about spin or lies or smoke and mirrors any more than The New York Times is "fake news."
Many times it's the PR pros who are the conscience of an organization. We counsel senior leaders and C-suite executives to do and say the right things and be transparent not because it will make our organization look good, but because it's the right thing to do. We push legal departments to let us say more than they'd like us to in public statements.
It makes sense if you think about it. Many PR professionals, myself included, are former journalists. We come into the profession because of our love of news and information sharing and truth telling -- and, yes, because it's a bit more stable than the news biz. Honest and the free flow of truthful information are core to the Public Relations Society of America's Code of Ethics.
A study published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, showed that more PR professionals understand it's their responsibility to champion truth and integrity for the good of the organization. That desire and ability to offer PR counsel in ways that honor truth and transparency have earned PR a "seat at the table," right next to all the other C-suite execs. Companies have come to understand they need honest, frank, truthful PR counsel at all times, not just when there's a proverbial fire to put out.
Look, I wouldn't be in this business if I had to lie to do my job. And I wouldn't be good at my job if I lied. See how that works?
That's because PR isn't just about information, it's about relationships -- with journalists, with stakeholders, with the public. And relationships aren't built on lies.
I like how PRSA chairman Anthony D'Angelo put it in an op-ed published last month in the L.A. Times.
"We won't lie or mislead. We play fair. Basically, we don't do anything that we wouldn't want to have widely reported by the news media. Operating that way is the right thing to do, and it builds trust with our clients, employers and the news media--which is good for business as well."
Companies should want to hire PR pros who value the truth. We know how to navigate crises without lying. We help executives be the best leaders they can be. We mitigate risk. We know there are many ways to tell a story, but it always starts with the facts. Most organizations get this.
After all, if lying was the way to get ahead in PR, perhaps Hicks would still have a job.