Does PR have a duty to tell the truth?

What a topic for a debate! This took place at the University of Westminster in London last Tuesday:

Leading figures of the UK PR world are to hold a debate at the University of Westminster on whether ‘PR has a duty to tell the truth’.

The result? According to Martin Moore who was there:

PR does not have a duty to tell the truth…according to an audience of over 260 public relations executives (and me). 138 voted against the motion in last night’s PR Week sponsored debate that ‘PR has a duty to tell the truth’, vs 124 for.

Moore notes in his post that PR does not have a ‘duty’ to tell the truth but a duty to serve its client. Surely a confusing situation for any PR practitioner.

Here’s the definition of PR according to the CIPR:

Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

There’s nothing there about telling the truth. Now take a look at the CIPR’s code of conduct (or IABC’s code of ethics where the word ‘truthful’ is mentioned).

This may seem like quite an ethical dilemma, not to mention a sorry indictment of the PR profession. But it’s not really. The decision for you is crystal clear – if you know what you’re about to communicate is untruthful, you do not communicate. That applies whether you’re on the agency or on the client side.

Here’s the thing – while the ‘duty’ of PR might not be to tell the truth, the duty for you as a communicator is. Telling the truth and serving your employer’s/client’s interests are not mutually exclusive.

Does anyone disagree?

(Via Jeff Jarvis)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Chip Griffin

    I believe PR practitioners must adhere to the rule that they not lie. This is slightly different than being obligated to tell the truth. I believe former White House spokesman Mike McCurry once described his job as “telling the truth slowly” and I suppose that aptly describes what I am saying.

    Obviously, in either an agency or corporate role, one has an obligation to the client/employer — and disclosing the unvarnished truth is rarely the first consideration in a crisis. The obligation to the media and public is simply that you never say anything knowingly false. However, there is no obligation to do the job of the media for them by proactively exposing the truth.

    That said, frequently the best strategy is to reveal the whole truth sooner than later when the facts are embarassing or incriminating. Postponing the inevitable rarely works as a viable option.

  2. Richard Stacy

    I agree with Neville in that the answer here lies with whom is doing the telling – not the discipline. PR has no ethical or moral aspect in itself – it is simply a collection of techniques which reflect the moral stance of whomever is using them.

    I must say – I find this debate, which has come up many times over the years, somewhat tiresome. Anyone who has been around in the media or PR for any length of time knows that there are always many versions of the truth. Truth is not an absolute concept – in the same way that facts, or lies, can be said to be – which is why PR iteslf exists.

    To make the argument work you therefore have to phrase it as “PR has a duty not to lie” – which takes you into the territory of the efficacy of lying. If you strip the morals out of this (for there is no point about having a moral argument about lying – that is for the philosophers) you will boil it down to the fact that lying is generally a stupid course to take because the chances of discovery are significant (and becoming greater) although there are exceptions when you can get away with it. This is both an obvious and not particularly stimulating conclusion to end up debating.

  3. Heather Yaxley

    This ridiculous debate has added more fire to the anti-PR lobby – see

    Even a small child understands that deberate lying to mislead others, especially where they may come to some harm, is wrong. But they are also taught that telling the whole truth, unvarnished, can also be harmful – hence diplomacy and tact results.

    Also, as history shows us all too often, there are frequently different perspectives on the truth – so this debate was a futile effort based on a stupid premise from the start.

    Such debates do nothing to examine the complexities of the situations we face daily. Nor do they help Public Relations establish a reputation for being ethical, honest and open where it matters – reflecting much the same principles as most of us adopt in life.

  4. Earl Voss

    Hi Neville,

    Perhaps this is overly obvious and maybe even a bit naive, but it seems to me that being untruthful is never helpful. One can omit under certain circumstances, but it is never beneficial, in the long run, to lie.

  5. Philip Young

    In his leader PR Week editor Danny Rogers writes: “The fact that PR people admit they need to lie occasionally is a sign of growing honesty and confidence in what they do.” He believes this reflects a new maturity and a more sophisticated approach to ethics.

    Perhaps he is right, but I find it extremely difficult to reconcile this new found sophistication and maturity with his earlier observation that Max Clifford delivered the ‘killer blow’ in the debate with a summing up in which he claimed to have helped win compensation for Farepak victims by ‘fibbing’ to Sainsbury’s that Tesco was about to launch a rescue package, prompting Sainsbury to take the initiative.

    Acknowledging that PR deals in partial truths, or that there is often more than one truth is one thing; agreeing with Clifford’s apparent view that if the end justifies the means it is OK to lie, is quite another.

    It is like a police officer planting evidence to put away a villain he knows to be guilty….

  6. neville

    Some great opinions, thanks everyone.

    I think you’re right, Heather, in that a debate like this adds fire to the anti-PR lobby. I don’t think it’s a ridiculous debate, though.

    Philip, that quote from Danny Rogers makes me shake my head in despair coming from the editor of the profession’s leading publication. What a load of cobblers!

    Many versions of the truth, Richard? Spin, you mean? No wonder PR has a bad rap.

    I hope Amanda doesn’t turn out to be right after all.

  7. Richard Stacy

    Many versions of the truth – absolutely. And that is a good thing. Preserving the right to maintain many versions of the truth is what open societies are about. People who believe in only one truth are called fundamentalists.

  8. neville

    Hmm, many versions of truth…

    How do we define truth, I wonder.

    Maybe Alfred Tarski’s Semantic Conception of Truth might help us. For instance, he quotes the conception of truth from Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ as it relates to the word ‘true’:

    To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.

    To me, that means one truth. In other words, there can be only one version of the truth.

    On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry for the word ‘truth’ has this:

    There is no single definition of truth about which the majority of scholars agree, and numerous theories of truth continue to be widely debated.

    How would you define truth?

  9. Philip Young

    If you read the PR Week report of the debate, or listen to the podacst interview with CIPR president Lionel Zetters, you will see that a key argument didn’t centre around conceptions of truth but around the employment of untruths – so-called fibs – to achieve client goals.

    Clifford is saying the client comes first and you do what you have to do to achieve results for that client. I think this position is fundamentally wrong as an ethical stance and would suggest that only someone with the power and of Max Clifford, and working in the particular areas in which he chooses to opearte, could get away with creating a media relations policy based on the premiss, “Believe me – I’m a liar!”

    PS I would also strongly disagree with Neville’s claim that there is only one truth; this is dangerous if taken literally and particularly dangerous when applied to the linguistics of PR – even if there were to be a situation of a single truth, it is almost always very hard to find words that exactly express that truth; this is why it is usually necessary to hear several voices before arriving at a working concept of truth.

  10. Richard Stacy

    I would agree with Philip – untruths – or lies – can be said to be an absolute concept, hence probably the reason the debate focused on this area. Truth is a relative concept, grounded more in territories of belief than in territories of fact – there is only one truth, there is only one God, there is only one way etc etc. That’s why – if you have to have this debate – it would be better to phrase it as “PR has a duty not to lie” – and keep truth out of it.

  11. Can you justify working in public relations? « Heather Yaxley - Greenbanana views of public relations and more

    […] Meanwhile a fascinating discussion is taking place in the public sphere of Neville Hobson’s blog on a post that was initiated by the PR Week “truth” debate with Max Clifford – see my post last week.  This includes a link to the Strumpette which supports an inherent human need to lie – and the more questionable assertion that PR is the lying profession. […]

  12. neville

    Maybe the key argument should have been around concepts of truth, Philip. And your point about Clifford’s approach is the same as saying the end justifies the means. Definitely wrong as you say.

    Richard, isn’t saying ‘PR has a duty not to lie’ the kind of double-speak that is a big part of why PR as a profession seems to be generally held in such low esteem?

  13. Chip Griffin

    Neville, I disagree that “PR has a duty not to lie” is double-speak, though it does sound like it. And I suppose the whole preceding sentence sounds like double-speak, so maybe I’m now stuck in an endless loop.

    In any event, I do believe that there is a difference between not lying and telling the truth. Put another way, there is a difference between sins of commission versus sins of omission. Certainly there will be situations where PR practitioners must walk a fine line between lying and revealing too much, too fast.

    So perhaps this is just semantics, but I believe in the power of precision in language. It is why I detest use of absolute terms like “always” and especially “never.” (And ask anyone who has ever worked for me about how I react to hearing “can’t.” Alas, I have wandered off course a bit, so I will draw this comment to a close.

  14. neville

    Thanks, Chip. Maybe some of our colleagues might see all this as semantics but I don’t.

    I definitely agree with you re sins of commission vs omission and walking a fine line. Yet that doesn’t mean you lie. I was going to say “that doesn’t mean you don’t tell the truth” but that’s a wishy-washy phrase.

    As for absolute terms, “it depends” is always a good fine line to walk.

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