The first Page Principle is “Tell the truth." Simple, right? Of course, it's not simple. Or easy.

Without making any political judgments or casting aspersions on anyone involved in the episode, the Wall Street Journal report on the Benghazi talking points saga is a good case study for how enterprises can find themselves in a thicket of conflicting priorities and motivations that make truth telling an extremely complicated endeavor.

Many of us who have worked in communications and public affairs in both politics and business can relate to the difficulties of the process engaged in by the U.S. intelligence community on the Benghazi talking points. Concerns about security (in business, it's proprietary information), about how much you really know, about the quality and reliability of your information, about individual agency or business unit priorities – all these and more often make it difficult to know exactly what is the truth.

Furthermore, different people involved in the process with different bits of information and different world views often can see the same set of facts quite differently.

It's quite possible, with all these uncertainties and gray areas, for it to be simultaneously true that, as the Journal reported one official said, "There was never any effort or intent to mislead or deceive," and at the same time not everyone involved was satisfied with the outcome. And of course, there is ongoing debate about whether the truth was fully told.

There are no easy answers here, but the best advice I have is this: Do your best to ascertain and tell the whole truth. When you don't know something, make that very clear. When you can't tell everything you know, make that clear, too. And when you learn new information that changes what you've said previously, get that out as quickly and as clearly as you can. And don't play technical games. You know when something is factually true but still misleading. That's not telling the truth.

One more thing: In my opinion, it's critical to have in charge of the process a responsible official who understands the importance of accurate and transparent disclosure. In most cases, that should be the chief communications officer, who should exercise this responsibility with advice from the general counsel and input from the business areas, subject, of course, to final review in important cases by the CEO. The reputation of the enterprise is too important to be left in the hands of an inter-agency or intra-business process with many participants but no clear accountability.

For more good advice on this topic – telling the truth, not Benghazi – see Bruce Harrison's recent post and Elliot Schreiber's comment on it.

Roger Bolton
Arthur W. Page Society