Image Credit: Cyber PR
I was in a political science class a few weeks ago and we were talking about the meaning of truth in our current political climate. The professor was talking about the many ways the government can lie to the public and how increasingly, there is a growing concern over the trustworthiness of the media – an institution whose sole purpose is to find the truth on behalf of every citizen. During the conversation, the professor stopped talking and asked if there were any public relations professionals in the room. A double major in public relations, I raised my hand wondering where the conversation was going next. I was the only one in the room to raise my hand. The professor then turned to me and said, “Ah, this must be a great time for your industry because they need people who can effectively spin. Isn’t that what you guys do most?” I left that class pondering his comments. The truth is, PR is not at all about spin.
Spin is a means of propaganda, often defined as the presentation of one side of an argument regardless of fact. In examining my professor’s comment, it’d be easy to see how one could conflate public relations to be a profession all about spin. In recent weeks we have seen individuals call news they do not like “fake news” or “fake media outlets,” and we have even seen others call to question the authenticity of “facts” by embracing “alternative facts.” It is important to note that alternative facts are not real, they are actually falsehoods that should not be presented as facts. These falsehoods have now become the layman’s functioning definition of spin, and by extension the layman’s functioning definition of public relations.
Here’s the truth about public relations: the industry runs off facts – information presented as having an objective reality (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2017). Organizations, corporations and brands who appreciate the value of engagement with the public will understand the importance of truth. As public relations professionals, all we have is our credibility. If reporters and the wider public can’t trust us, then we are completely useless to the field. As a vice-president of the Penn State chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America, I take very seriously our PRSA code of ethics which states: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” (PRSA, 2017)
As my professor says in my COMM 373: Crisis Communications class, every public relations professional should, “Tell the truth, tell it quickly and tell it yourself.” This includes times when things are not in our best interests. Let that be our guiding principle as we traverse this field and grow in our profession – our credibility and the credibility of those we represent are at stake.