The integrity litmus test – is there a right PR life in a wrong environment?

While no one doubts we are living in the information age, there’s a big debate within the communications profession about the consequences of new digital communications channels. Although questions initially centered almost entirely on the craft of using and integrating the new channels and platforms into an effective communications strategy, attention is now increasingly turning to the attitudes and values of communicators.

In the recently published book Communication Excellence (Ralph Tench, Dejan Verčič, Ansgar Zerfass et. al.), the authors argue that personal attributes, such as credibility and a sense of responsibility, are just as key to competence as knowledge and skills when it comes to – as the authors call it – sagacious communications management. The book is based on data from the European Communication Monitor, an annual survey conducted since 2007.

Ethics is, in fact, not new to the communications world. In 2008, Horst Avenarius, Honorary Member of the German PR Council, traded blows with Klaus Merten, now Professor Emeritus at WWU Münster’s Department of Communication, about whether PR was even possible without spinning the truth or even lying – a claim Avenarius made categorically and which Merten challenged. In the meantime, the German Communication Code, which Günter Bentele strongly advocated, was adopted in 2012, providing practitioners with professional ethics standards. Perhaps no one has put it more bluntly than the honorable Arthur W. Page Society, which called upon its members to simply “tell the truth.”

From Grima Wormtongue in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Nick Naylor in Christopher Buckley’s Thank you for Smoking to Remy Danton in the TV series House of Cards, the list of unscrupulous PR people in literature, film and TV is a long one. What’s the one thing they all have in common? A somewhat elastic relationship with the truth. And they’re fully aware of it. If you’re tempted to cry “foul,” it’ll likely fall on deaf ears in today’s age of out-of-control spin doctoring, targeted fake news and other monumentally decorative rhetorical masterpieces by self-appointed communications gurus.

But quite the reverse is true in the real world because we have to ask ourselves the question: How do communicators themselves actually avoid becoming pawns in a game of questionable interests? Or to put it in the terms of the late German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno: Is there a right PR life in a wrong environment? The answer is not trivial: Unlike journalists, who (should) pursue the object of their investigation with inductive reasoning and an open mind, PR people follow decidedly deductive principles. The working hypothesis goes something like this: My company or my organization has legitimate interests and one of my responsibilities is to defend those interests. But how do you stay on top of everything in increasingly complex organizations operating in a world of ever more rapidly changing media? Even with a healthy dose of professional skepticism, you just can’t do it without putting trust in your colleagues and management. But obviously that confidence could be betrayed. And that can have fatal consequences for communicators, because ultimately it’s their personal credibility on the line.

There seem to be three reasonable ways to “immunize” yourself in order to permanently pass the integrity litmus test in communications: be a good judge of character, be able to maintain some distance, and be able to take a clear stance. As PR professionals and spokespersons, you do not serve abstract organizations, you work for real people. You have to decide whether to be for or against those people. And regardless of how much you “drink the Kool-Aid” – how much you are excited about the people, products and services you stand for – you also need to maintain a healthy distance in order to see the forest for the trees, to take an objective look at the things right in front of you that might eventually cause fundamental problems for the organization as a whole. Finally, you have to be able to take a stand. If you want to avoid becoming the mouthpiece of a hidden agenda at the peak of a crisis, you need to be strong enough to ask uncomfortable questions. As Winston Churchill once said: “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.”

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