Stories versus facts: Do communicators have a personal responsibility to ensure the public isn’t misled?


Every public relations professional should agree that it is absolutely wrong to lie on behalf of a client or employer. But where do the ethical boundaries lie between advocating the strongest case and misleading people?

You’ll learn:
•    Professional best practice
•    Practical arguments for honesty
•    Tips and tactics for fact-checking

Professional best practice

One of the major milestones to an occupation becoming recognised as a profession is the introduction of a professional code of ethics. The earliest and best known example of professional ethics is the Hippocratic oath which medical doctors still adhere to. 

In the UK, public relations is governed by two main codes of conduct, from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), which both broadly say the same things, although the precise wording differs.

The key relevant themes of both are:

•    To have proper regard for the public interest
•    A duty to deal fairly and honestly
•    A duty to check the accuracy of information before disseminating it
•    To never knowingly mislead

Both codes are carefully worded to require you to ‘check’ or ‘use proper care’ as both bodies recognise that the PR professional cannot always be absolutely certain of the reliability and accuracy of the information they are given by others.

There is a difference between ‘false’ information (which can perhaps be more honestly described as lies) and ‘misleading’ information as it is possible to mislead by sticking to facts and the truth, just not the whole truth. Edmund Burke wrote: “Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth.”

Both the CIPR and the PRCA codes make it clear that to mislead is also a breach of their professional codes.

However, as in all questions of ethical behaviour, it isn’t always clear cut what is the correct ethical course to take. It is quite possible for ‘regard for the public interest’ to be at odds with the duty to not mislead.

What if thousands of jobs depend on maintaining the secrecy of contract negotiations and the PR professional is explicitly asked if contract negotiations are taking place? 

What about when special forces are conducting military operations to rescue hostages deep inside enemy held territory and all their lives would be at risk if there was even a hint an operation was taking place? 

Practical arguments for honesty

The CIPR and PRCA codes tell us what is expected of PR professionals, but the reality is that it’s not always as easy to do these things in practice.

There has always been an ethical and moral case for PR professionals to be honest and truthful, but there are also practical arguments, which today are stronger than ever. The first is one of trust. To be successful a PR professional needs to be trusted by the stakeholders they seek to influence. The second is the emergence of the internet and search making it far easier and faster for anyone to fact-check. The third is that social media means everyone has the power to challenge what you say and disseminate evidence to prove you are wrong.

This means that in the past an unscrupulous PR person could have decided to cast aside professional ethics to knowingly disseminate false information because they could have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it. Today, the chances of being caught and exposed have increased phenomenally so even the unscrupulous would be unwise to risk it.

However, just as the risks of being caught today are greater, so too are the challenges of actually complying with the principles of honest facts and not misleading people. Many ‘experts’ have pointed to the EU referendum campaign in the UK and the Donald Trump presidential campaign in the USA as evidence that we now live in a ‘post-fact’ era where, according to Michael Gove MP, people ‘have had enough of experts.’

One of PR’s greatest benefits over advertising is that it always deals in truth, facts and real stories, while advertising relies on made-up stories. Consumers today are demanding greater authenticity so PR’s real stories are more powerful than ever. 

Tips and tactics for fact checking

Too many PR people are too ready to accept what an employer or client tells them and in too many cases they may not be being told the truth. The employer or client may not be deliberately misleading the PR person, but can simply be relaying what they believe to be true.

That’s why both the CIPR and the PRCA put the onus on the public relations professional to check and use proper care when disseminating information they’ve been given. It is of equal importance to take this care whether you are retweeting a tweet, or if you are issuing a news release, formal statement or disclosure to a stock exchange.

It’s one area where PR professionals, even those who don’t do media relations, can learn a lot from traditional journalists. There’s an old newsroom adage that became the slogan of the Chicago City News Bureau:

‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’

Just as you can use Rudyard Kipling’s six tenets of reporting as the basis for creating a story, you can also use them as principles for fact checking. Ask what, why, when, how, where and who.

It is good idea to check the provenance of the information you are being given. What is the source? Are they qualified or permitted to provide you with the information? What is the date? Is it the most up to date information available?

There are lots of areas where PR people are at risk of inadvertently misleading people, but some where extra care needs to be exercised include:

•    Scientific research where the need to make the story more understandable can introduce inadvertent errors or the most newsworthy angle risks exaggerating the results.

•    Editing quotes, video and longer copy where removing minor words or phrases inadvertently or deliberately changes the meaning. Be particularly careful when tweeting as the restrictions of just 140 characters increase the risk of becoming misleading and remember many people will only read the tweet and will share it without even reading the link.

•    Market research and polls where selective use of the data can mislead. A potential pitfall of releasing the source data to improve transparency can actually risk people interpreting it incorrectly.

•    Case studies where the people and organisations depicted need to be real.

It’s your responsibility to get it right

It’s not always easy to know what the facts are and what could mislead people. PR professionals can’t be expected to have expertise on the subject matter of every issue they ever work on. 

However, what every public relations professional must do is take personal responsibility for trying to get it right. To never be afraid to ask the difficult questions and demand answers. If you don’t ask them then others will which will be ultimately be far more damaging to reputation than being honest and factual at the start.

Stuart Bruce MPRCA FCIPR is an award-winning public relations adviser who counsels and trains corporate and government clients all over the world working with in-house teams and agencies. He has earned an international reputation as a thinker and doer in modernised public relations practice. 

Twitter: @stuartbruce