In public relations, values and worldviews are as important and relevant as facts. Together, they combine to form ‘truths’. Yet whose truth is correct? How are we to decide on the most appropriate truth and what happens when it butts heads with another’s – different – truth? Negotiation, collaboration and acceptance of each other’s right to difference will help us practice PR at its most effective level.

Seeking truths through and for PR

Facts are important. Truth requires the integration of ALL known facts, not only those that please us. If we are left with facts that do not fit into our global interpretation, this means a part of reality escapes us; we must therefore continue to explore.

This approach has the immense benefit of forcing us to remain perpetually open to the position of others; this openness is the basis of dialogue.

This is a guest post by strategic Canadian public relations professions, Guy Versailles.* By the way, if you find this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Thanks!

Beyond the facts, there are values. If the promoter and the ecologist espouse different views, it is because one gives more importance to economic development while the other believes the protection of the environment should prevail (granted, I am being overly simplistic here to demonstrate a point). Therefore, in public relations we must reconcile not only facts, but also values and worldviews.

The recognition of differences in values and worldviews is as important as the establishment of ‘the facts’ in creating meaningful dialogue.

I will go even further: the public relations professional must be cognizant of his own values and worldviews and those of his employer or client. Otherwise, his efforts to create dialogue will fail as he himself becomes a stakeholder in the debate he would moderate.

My truth vs. your truth

In most complicated situations, legitimate yet contradictory interests coexist.

The promoter of a project has his interests and his views; the people favorably impacted on by the project have their own, as do the people unfavorably impacted on. Media, governments and all other stakeholders will have their views, too. Who is right and who is wrong?

There are as many ‘truths’ out there as there are honest people. This comment is not meant to be cynical. We all develop our personal worldview, constructed on the basis of what we hold for true facts, which we weight according to our values and our beliefs.

This is my personal definition of the truth: Truth is a worldview where all known facts are coherently assembled and weighted according to our values and beliefs.

Truth in public relations

As far as truth goes, our professional lives are strewn with ambiguous situations. What is your assessment of the following situations?

  • In the ice storm of 1998, when the island of Montreal (1.8 million people) was deprived of 90 % of its electricity supply for almost a week, the prime minister and the CEO of Hydro-Québec learned that the city’s drinking water supply was dangerously low. They chose to keep the information confidential until the problem was solved.
  • Every day, spokespeople of commercial companies refuse to disclose trade secrets and corporate strategies. They depict favorably their company and sell their products without feeling obligated to emphasize their weaker points.
  • Companies listed on the stock exchange are subject to rigorous disclosure requirements but their spokespeople will try by all acceptable means to present their business in a favorable light in order to maintain the value of their stock.
  • The public relations people who work for the police authorities refuse to discuss ongoing operations, or even to confirm or to deny their existence. It could even happen that they deny something they know is true to protect an ongoing operation.
  • Wikileaks has established that governments do not reveal everything they learn, or what they really think on other countries and their leaders.
  • The public relations people in the service of promoters highlight the economic merits of their projects, while those who are serving environmental groups insist rather on their environmental impact. Both sides insist on different sets of facts, without necessarily painting the entire portrait.

All of these situations raise these questions: must we say everything? Is it acceptable, or even preferable, in certain circumstances, to hide, to pretend, or even to say things that we know to be false?

Where is the line not to cross, and depending on what criteria? Personally, I attach great importance to the respect of the facts, but I know, by experience, that all things should not be said at all times.

We intuitively decide on such choices in our daily lives. We tell our child “You are the most beautiful”. Perhaps we really believe this? Yet all other parents know this to be false, since it is THEIR child they find the most beautiful; there is a conflict between two ‘truths’. Perhaps we know it is false even as we say it? So we are ‘lying’ but it is our way of expressing our love. In any case, are we lacking in sincerity?

In summary, there is no simple answer to the question of truth.

We must learn to think and determine what must be said in each situation. We must develop our ethics. “Science without conscience ruins the soul”, said Rabelais.

Similarly, public relations without ethics open the door to lies and manipulation. The more we occupy a strategic position, the more this is true. That is why it is so important for experienced public relations professionals not only to deepen their training on the effective use of tools and methods, but also to take the time to reflect on their values and to form a strong ethical conscience.

What did you think of Guy’s discussion on the nature of truth in general and specifically truth in the practice of public relations? Do you have examples of when the application of ‘truth’ (or even disclosure) has caused you concern or grief in your professional life? Have you has cause to question the truth of organisations you have observed?

 

*Guy Versailles has expertise in communications strategy and planning, with a special emphasis on press relations, public affairs, internal communication and crisis management. He has worked in high profile government positions (including the Office of the Premier of Québec), Hydro-Québec and the Solidarity Fund QFL, a major investment fund based in Montreal. He holds a BA and is a director of Public Relations Without Borders , a non-profit organisation working with populations facing development challenges by using public relations to leverage social and economic progress. He is a past director of Quebec’s foremost association of public relations professionals. He was recently awarded the Yves Saint-Amand Award for Excellence, in recognition for his contribution to the advancement of professional public relations. He is President of strategic communication consultancy, Versailles Communication.