PR AND PROPAGANDA: ON THE ETHICS OF TRUTH
by Tom Rankin, APR
What's the difference between PR and propaganda? In a word, truth. In the opinion of this humble worker for same, if what you're "spinning" has a solid basis in fact, you're doing PR. If not, it's propaganda. Plain and simple.
But what is 'truth', not in the larger, cosmic sense, but in terms of practical, everyday reality? And as a marketer/practitioner, what are your obligations for determining it? According to the Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, members have an obligation to "Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented."
So what does this mean, really? I just opened a news release at random from our files and read the following claim about the MMQ 6100 form measuring system from Mahr Federal: "The system is designed to easily check roundness, circular flatness, concentricity, perpendicularity, parallelism and coaxiality." OK, I haven't done this, but I suspect it would be very easy to verify that the instrument does indeed make these checks. But how about some of the additional claims: "Overall spindle accuracy is ± .035 microns (± 1.4 microinches). Tilt centering table capabilities include a centering range of ± 2 millimeters (± .079") and tilting range of ± .6"." How am I to verify that, or do I even have to?
Take another example, this from a biotech client: "The PolyGenyx HaploScan technology is the only robust, direct measurement, high-throughput SNP haplotyping approach that is not dependent on family samples, allele frequency, sex chromosomes or computer algorithms." Through working with this client, I have some understanding of what SNP haplotypes are (for those who may be curious, they are related, genetically transmittable groupings of SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms). But it would take a PhD in molecular biology to even understand the company's "Proof of Principle" for this technology, much less set out to verify it.
The bottom line is that in many instances, we really cannot "investigate the truthfulness" of our client's claims. We must take them on faith, trust their claims because we trust them. Does this make us chumps, then? In our enthusiasm to do good work for our clients, do we risk crossing into an ethical no-man's land? And if so, what then separates us from those Nazi propagandists of old who also took certain things on faith and also trusted those who led them?
It's an uncomfortable position to be in, admittedly, but it is also a real one and should be recognized as such by those who practice not only PR, but marketing communications in general. However, two other things also help make the process somewhat self-correcting and mitigate the risk of taking truth on faith. One is another provision in the PRSA Code, which obligates practitioners to "Act promptly to correct erroneous communications." This can take many forms, from sending a simple correction to the media, to--as in the case of a client who intentionally provides false and misleading information--publicly resigning the account and repudiating all work that has been released on their behalf. This is not good "PR" for the offending entity, even in the world of propaganda.
The other is an even stronger incentive for honesty in making technical claims, and serves as the unspoken "or else" that follows the ubiquitous "trust us." This is the reaction in the usually tight-knit, technical/industrial marketplace to making false and misleading claims: for both client and practitioner, the result is total and complete censure. Once a company or PR practitioner looses an editor's trust, he or she is unlikely to get it back, and releases from that company are unlikely to ever see print. And if both practitioner and editor are hoodwinked, customers will certainly not be, at least not for very long, and word of their disenchantment will be heard loud and long among engineering circles. So does this mean that truth will always win out and the world is filled with goodness and light? Not in the least. We must be vigilant. But it does mean that we are not alone in our faith and that there are reactions in equal proportion to our actions. That, at least, is a comfort.
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