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Lies, damn lies, and PR

Pontius-pilatewithwordsforbanner2-e1330069378675Faced with a tricky judicial question, a first century Roman governor named Pontius Pilate was quoted somewhere skeptically asking "What is truth?"

It's a question public relations people face nearly every day.

They're seldom -- if ever -- asked to lie. But they seldom -- if ever -- know all the truth.

And even when they do, they have to figure out how much to tell.

Apparently, when Robert Gibbs was President Obama's press secretary, he was told to not even admit the U.S. was conducting drone strikes in foreign countries.

Curiously, as far as I can tell, no one in the news media has taken him to task for it, other than fake newsman Jon Stewart and Gibbs' fellow MSNBC colleague, Rachel Maddow. (But Maddow's heart didn't seem to be in it, while Stewart held nothing back.) 

Technically, Gibbs didn't lie. He simply refused to respond to certain questions. Or is that a kind of lying?

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Chairman of RSA Security described the criteria a company should use in deciding whether or not to disclose cyber attacks it suffered. 

"If an attack on you has the potential to hurt somebody else, then you likely have an obligation to disclose it," he says. "And for your shareholders, you have a responsibility to disclose if you suffered an economic loss."  Then he continues, "If an attack on you might be a source of embarrassment, but nothing is lost then perhaps you don't need to disclose it."

We'll never know how much Gibbs was arguing behind the scenes for greater transparency. But on the face of it, it seems that RSA's chairman has a better grasp of what should be revealed (though he leaves himself a loophole big enough for a few whoppers to pass through).

The rule of thumb I tried to follow in my career is relatively straightforward: people deserve to be told everything they need to know to make an informed decision, whether it's buying the company's stock, working there, doing business with it, or letting it operate in their community.

I can't say I followed that rule flawlessly. So I'm willing to cut Mr. Gibbs some slack. 

But unlike Governor Pilate, PR people can't wash their hands of their obligation to the truth, even if it's uncomfortable.

Got fiction?

Blackboard.003In OtherWise, I refer to research showing that today's college students are less empathetic than they used to be.

Some people think it's because college kids read less than they used to.

Getting wrapped up in a fictional narrative, it's been suggested, transports readers emotionally. At least one study claimed that "fiction is a simulation of social experiences, in which people practice and enhance their interpersonal skills."

Of course, that was just a theory. No one had figured out how to distinguish cause from correlation. And we all know how misleading correlations can be.

But now there's experimental evidence of the connection between reading fiction and the ability to empathize with others.

Two Dutch scientists have conducted experiments showing that reading fiction can actually increase someone's empathy if the story is good enough to involve the reader emotionally.

Chalk one up for romance novels. 

But more to the point, if you can get your kids to pick up another good novel when they put down Harry Potter, you could help make the world a better place.



I measure, therefore I am

DescartesIn a time of tight budgets it's not surprising that many  PR people are obsessed with measurement.

After all, they have to justify their existence.

Unfortunately, outputs are easier to capture than outcomes. And while a pile of news clippings might impress some executives, others are skeptical about its real dollars and cents value.

So the search for the Holy Grail of PR measurement -- how to quantify its bottom line impact  -- continues.

As someone who stumbled through the dark in that very quest for more than three decades, I can only admire the efforts of such organizations as the Institute for Public Relations, which claims to do research in, on, and for PR.

Research "in PR" deals with planning and measurement. Research "on PR" is all about benchmarking and best practices.

But the further I get from the need to justify what I do, the more I see that the real payoff is in research "for PR," into the social sciences underpinning the practice. 

Ironically, the practice of PR at the turn of the last century used many of the then-new discoveries of psychoanalysis, as this NPR story about Edward Bernays.  For more, see the Museum of PR

Though the practice of psychoanalysis isn't as popular as it once was, it stimulated more than a century of psychological research. Recent years have seen a flowering of new discoveries in human cognition and behavior through the application of everything from new survey techniques to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

The question for PR practitioners is whether they are taking full advantage of these new discoveries to shape their work. Or whether they're spending more time counting newsclips. 



Davos Post-Mortem

Davos_world_economic_forumBjorn Edlund used to run public relations for Royal Dutch Shell and is now with the Edelman public relations agency in Europe. 

Our paths didn't cross when I headed PR for AT&T, a fact I regret every time I read one of his postings on the Arthur W. Page Society web site.

His thoughts following the World Economic Forum in Davos are just another example.

You can read the whole posting here, but his four key takeaways for communications professionals pretty much stand on their own:

First, uncertainty breeds a need for deeper, rich-context public relations. Understanding the societal dilemmas in which a corporation operates – so that it can mitigate its risks, operate with less friction, and spot and capture new openings – is a contribution that the CCO is uniquely placed to focus on.

Second, a fragile recovery is a chance to work on behaviors. Any economic trough brings a “back to basics” momentum. As we climb out of the trough, let’s not forget the basics, but codify and cement the good habits of leaner times to build better behaviors.

Third, storytelling remains the core of our job. As the global conditions for business change – how to stay both locally anchored and authentic is a balancing act which we need to address in the narrative about our company’s place in the world.

And finally, purpose is key. Knowing how to live your purpose so that CSR is not an add-on – as The Economist largely sees it – but your company’s way to create shared value is another opportunity for the CCO.

Something tells me Edlund got more out of the Davos meeting than most of the CEOs who were there just to rub elbows with other CEOs higher on the food chain.