One of the mantras of ‘effective’ or ‘best practice’ public relations is ‘customise’. Customise, for the target audience: the methodology through which information is communicated; the language that is used; how much the approaches of broadcast, consultation, negotiation and organisational change are applied; and, most critically, how much ‘truth’, or how much ‘depth of truth’, is actually revealed through the communication process.

Truth in public relations

Over the ‘inverted commas’ yet? Me too. Enough of the irony.

The key question I am raising – how much truth should be articulated through public relations programs – is a fundamental one for public relations. It’s not such a fundamental one for marketing, as it is a discipline predicated on spin. Marketing creates products and services that meet a need or a want, then convince potential and current customers to buy stuff; then buy more stuff.

Anyone who expects ‘pure’ marketing to be founded on truth is living in the wrong dimension. Sorry, there are those inverted commas again. I use them this time as marketing is not so pure as it once was, which is a good thing.

Social media has had a large influence on this development of marketing, as the emperor’s new clothes get called out more often and with a much louder voice due to social media. All those customer review sites like tripadvisor and Urbanspoon (my recommendation? Thanks for asking. It’s Perth’s Mrs S) are an excellent example of this.

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Of course, my observation about how much one can rely on marketing for truth, when I am clearly implying the sometimes quite reviled discipline of PR has greater credibility in this regard, will be taken with a significantly sized salt shaker by many.

Public relations is dead without truth

It worries me when, as PR professionals, we are called upon to customise truth. Selective truth(s)?

This implies that we should be telling one target audience one set of truths and another a different, or more enhanced, set of truths.

  • Surely in this day and age the different truths will eventually leak from one target audience segment to another?
  • And surely, when this occurs, the target audiences who did not receive the more enhanced or fuller truths will not be particularly thrilled with the information-disseminating organisation?
  • Which then leads, in our triumvirate of surelys, to a diminished organisational reputation?

There are two further dimensions to this discussion.

Firstly, no doubt there are situations where the strategy behind the communication means that certain key stakeholders will need to be communicated with first. This might well be behind closed doors (I’m trying to refrain from the inverted commas, I hope you can tell…). An example of this is when politicians are briefed on a situation first as they are the ultimate decision maker on an issue, with other target audiences (communities, business sectors etc) communicated with second.

The second is that different target audiences will be concerned about different issues and, perhaps more relevantly, with different aspects of these issues. So it makes sense to mainly (but not entirely) communicate on the primary areas of concern to target audiences rather than those of little concern.

It’s a delicate balance, however, which goes back to the title of this post: is there an absolute truth that should always be told, or is it relative? And when making this decision, what are the guiding principles that we should be cognisant of and should guide us through the fog?

One lesson that many organisations have learnt the hard way is deliberately obfuscating the truth will come back to bite you. Transparency and proactivity should be PR foundations by default. Any other approach needs to be carefully considered in light of an organisation’s guiding principles.

Making the right PR decisions about truth

Factors that will influence the process of making decisions about the content used in public relations and the timing of its release include:

  • Business objectives
  • Moral imperatives
  • Relationships and connections between target audience segments.

These three factors are, obviously, all interconnected. And how an organisation deals with them will provide at least some of its guiding principles.

Surely moral imperatives will play a significant role in how an organisation shapes its business objectives? And the relationships and interconnectivity of target audiences must play a significant role in an organisation’s pure marketing (the creation and selling, remember, of products and services).

These three factors should always be in the strategic public relations’ leader’s mind when she provides advice to an organisation in the way it not only communicates, but the way it conducts its business. Without the permission of its target audiences and other stakeholders to operate, it will not achieve its potential.

So tell us, how much do you customise the truth in the way you practice public relations? Do you have an ‘economy of truth’? Do you have examples where relative truth served you well and/or addressed the three factors noted above: business, morality, relationships?

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