The latest PR war between tech blog Boy Genius Report and Apple has ignited some pretty harsh accusations, including charges that Apple’s PR is lying about emails BGR claims were sent by Steve Jobs. For me, the outcome of the drama isn’t important, except as it affects the reputation of those of us who earn a living doing public relations.
Among all the things we’ve been called, the most stinging may be that PR people are professional liars. There’s that ten-year-old PR Week survey in which 25% of PR pros admitted to lying on the job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! The Boy Genius flap reminded me of Newsweek reporter (and fake Steve Jobs blogger) Dan Lyons’ charges that Yahoo’s PR team were “lying sacks of s–t” for misinforming him about CEO Jerry Yang’s plans to step down. More recently, there was Erick Schonfeld’s evisceration of AOL’s communications chief for denying a rumor about an executive departure that was later proven true.
So, do PR people really need to lie to hang onto their jobs? True, sometimes a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or split hairs to avoid premature disclosure of material news. But, an outright fabrication? It doesn’t make sense. Why lie when you can usually fail to return calls or emails? Where’s the sense in making a public statement that’s proven untrue mere days later?
There’s another explanation, of course. When there’s a major development afoot, the PR person is sometimes the last to know. I’d argue that in many of the high-profile disputes about truth in public relations, the communications officers in question weren’t lying, at least not consciously. They actually didn’t know what was going on, because they weren’t told.
I believe it because I’ve been there. Even at large companies with plenty of PR savvy, the communications staff is sometimes the last to know. An agency relationship is more removed, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve read important client news in the press, only to be told by the client that they got the news at the last minute….or not at all. We joke about it, but it’s not a laughing matter.
Is it that we can’t handle the truth? Is the PR team thought of as the clean-up crew, helping with damage control after the fact? Are we viewed as too cozy with the press to be trusted? A somewhat kinder explanation is that keeping PR in the dark offers deniability later. In any case, it’s a credibility-killer. And, it’s a sorry situation when your best defense is that you’re out of the loop.
The Boy Genius-Apple dispute might be semantics. But, in many cases, the “liar” label is a symptom of a more frequent and therefore more disturbing issue – that senior PR officers don’t always have the confidence of top management when the big news is breaking. Which leads to the frustrating, Catch-22 question. How does PR offer quality counsel and effectively manage public and stakeholder communications if we’re in the dark? Yet, how do we gain that “seat at the table” without the credibility that honest counsel inspires?