Arthur W. Page Society

Tell the Truth

brian williams on nbc

This is the first Page Principle: Tell the truth. It sounds simple, but it's not always easy. (I've made this point here before.) As Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and one of the leading ethicists in the world, notes in a recent post: “Most people, even good people, lie at least occasionally." (Disclosure: I've just been named chair-elect of JIE.)

For a journalist, the truth must be paramount. We understand and forgive press bias. We know that many journalists have a point of view and read their coverage with that in mind. But outright fabrication? Not okay. That's not to say mistakes can't be forgiven. I'd like to see Brian Williams find a way to make amends and keep his job with a new commitment to the literal truth at all times. (Disclosure: I serve with Williams on the Elon University School of Communications Advisory Board.)

For a politician, the standard should be equally high. We understand they are advocating points of view and take into account their known ideology as we listen to their arguments for and against policy issues. But making up facts should not be permitted. It's the voters' job to determine how much they are willing to tolerate the many politicians, including presidents, who have fabricated stories, much like Mr. Williams, to protect or enhance their image.

In public relations or corporate communications, the truth is essential. Our primary goal must be to build trust in the enterprises we serve. Yes, like some journalists and all politicians, we are advocates. But even a little lie, or an omission of an important fact, can be devastating.

For members of the Arthur W. Page Society, speaking the truth on behalf of our organizations must be our number one priority, never to be compromised. That means being ruthlessly vigilant not only about factual accuracy, but also about the completeness of every communication to every stakeholder every day.

It's hard work, because self-delusion can easily convince an enterprise of things that aren't really fully, objectively true, and rooting out the natural bias takes both diligence and an ability to see the world through the objective eyes of others. It also takes guts to stand up for the truth against the natural instincts of an organization to let the little lies or omissions put it in a better light than it deserves.

There's a popular view that PR is about spin, and spin is about deception – about making things seem better than they really are. Certainly, some practitioners are guilty of that. But in doing so, they do their clients a disservice. Public relations truly is about earning trust, and that can only be done by deserving it. And that, as Arthur W. Page said, starts with telling the truth.

Michael Josephson concludes: “When credibility is important, and it always is, there are no little lies."

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