Andrew Graham
Andrew Graham

How’s this for a provocative statement sure to rile up PR pros: “Truth is overrated, less relevant than ever and rarely provides a competitive advantage in business. Therefore, we should not make truth a priority in the practice of our profession.”

Most public relations practitioners would disagree with this statement. Of course the truth is essential! But it is the premise that PRSA-NY put on trial on Oct. 7, when experts in ethics, communication, and media examined the role that truth plays in today’s noisy media environment. 

This was not just another panel. Moderator Emmanuel Tchividjian, formerly chief ethics officer of Ruder Finn and, more recently, founder of ethics and communications consulting practice The Markus Gabriel Group, framed the debate as a mock tribunal, with two panelists playing the role of the prosecution and two others playing the role of the defense. Tchividjian played the role of the judge. And the audience was the jury.

The main sentiment in support of the motion, which framed truth and honesty as comparatively unimportant to modern businesses, is that anything other than full and complete transparency is a lie by omission. Companies — which are not people, but rather legal entities that exist on paper to make as much money as possible for their owners — are not interested in complete and radical truth-telling because it gets in the way of this narrow but routine objective. 

The defense, in other words, argued that it is less about us as PR practitioners and more about the broader environment that we operate in. If you want to get shoved out of the room where important decisions are made, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you want to remain there, then know your role and play the game.

I do not agree with their premise — that radical transparency is the only way for a company to be truthful — but it’s a sensible way to argue that the truth shouldn’t be a priority for today’s communicators. The panelists who took that stance, it should be noted, were playing a role. I find it hard to believe that either one of them would argue against truth-telling in their professional capacity. 

The prosecution of the motion, which argued in favor of truth-telling, took the epically reasonable position that, yes, the truth still matters, even in today’s business and political climate, which could charitably be described as “difficult.” One noteworthy element of their argument was that it’s not an either-or matter; that truth can instead be told in degrees. What questions do stakeholders need answered in order to make informed decisions, and is there consensus as to those answers? 

In other words, while there are objective facts and statistics, a broadly truth-based narrative about a company, an organization, or an individual is actually subjective when you look at it as a whole. There are episodic truths and narrative truths, and PR practitioners, as storytellers, tend to work to define the narrative truth. That narrative might hold back some of the details, but that does not make it any less truthful, as a whole and complete message, to stakeholders. 

The panelists were Andrea Bonime-Blanc, CEO and founder of GEC Risk Advisory; Jim Lukaszewski, chairman at The Lukaszewski Group; T.J Elliott, knowledge broker at Educational Testing Services; and Michael Schubert, chief innovation officer at Ruder Finn. Because they were playing roles, it isn’t important to know who was arguing which side of the motion. (How’s that for a self-referential example of a narrative truth that glosses over some factual detail?) The point is that all panelists brought a unique perspective and started an important conversation. 

PRSA-NY held this event because it is more important than ever for professional communicators to uphold the principles of a free and fair press, which are essential to democracy. 

As for the ruling? Before the panel began, just three “jurists” — the audience — said they agreed with the premise. After it concluded, the same three agreed. The vast majority of the room sided with the truth being important, even today, and stuck to that opinion.

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Andrew Graham is founding partner of Clear, an issues management practice in New York City, and vice president of marketing for PRSA-NY.