I’ve spent 40 years in organizational communications, mostly in the corporate world. I’ve been on the firing line more times than I want to remember – product crises, environmental crises, public controversies involving the company, and more. I worked for slightly less than year for an urban school district forced into massive change during a full-blown financial crisis and became the most familiar face on local television during that time.
Once, perhaps more than once, I was asked a question by an acquaintance that caught me up short, because I had never been asked it before.
“Have you ever lied for your company?”
I thought a moment, looked at the person asking the question, and answered.
“No. Not once.”
He was surprised. That’s what public relations people are supposed to do, right – lie on a regular basis? Or “mis-speak,” to use the more common word today.
I understand the question. I have seen PR people lie. I’ve also seen just about every other kind of professional and worker lie as well.
But with PR, it’s expected. PR carries a bias for the organization, or bias for the client.
And I will say this: the questioner actually asked the wrong question. The question he should have asked was: “Have you ever been asked, or told, to lie for your company?”
He would have gotten a very different answer. Actually, he would have received four different answers.
First, being directly and knowingly asked to tell a lie is exceedingly rare. It might have been more common in the days before tape recorders, listening devices, and email, but no one says “I need you to lie to the newspaper about this one.” It can happen, but it’s not at all common.
But things quickly get more interesting, more “gray.”
It is possible to speak the truth and lie at the same time – but omitting a key fact or number or situation or perspective. Most of what passes for “spin” – positive or negative – falls into this category, emphasizing one perspective while hoping no one asks about the other. This isn’t limited to business and the private sector, by the way; many others commonly do this. The list includes politicians, social and environmental activists, lobbyists, attorneys arguing court cases, and teachers trying to explain why they don’t teach penmanship any more but that sensitivity training module for 8-year-olds was wonderful. Newspaper editorial writers are often especially prone to this.
Spin is not something done only by PR people.
The third form of lying is how you say something. You use enough high-sounding words to make a statement seem substantive but really say very little. You emphasize a particular word or phrase, directing attention away, such as “We would never consider doing something that dastardly” (meaning, “No, but we might have done something slightly less dastardly”). What may the most common form of lying in America today – the non-apology: “If I offended anyone with my statement, I’m sorry.” That little word “if” changes the entire meaning.
And finally there’s the old standby, “No comment.” In some cases, organizations truly can’t comment for valid legal reasons – like when an executive gets fired after losing an internal political battle, or a merger or acquisition is pending and what you say will be scrutinized to death by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Publicly traded companies have to be particularly careful.
But much of the time, “no comment” means you don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing and the accusation is actually correct, or a response might get you sued, or answering the question will only drag you into a deeper quagmire.
So, have I successfully avoided lying in all of these contexts? The answer is yes.
In most cases, candid discussion will set things right. People often don’t realize that omitting something or a particular phrasing can be misleading or untruthful, and they will work to make it right.
But it’s made for some difficult work situations. If you regularly raise objections to a planned statement or course of action for valid reasons, you will not be seen as a team player. There can be and often is a cost to your career, your salary, your bonus and your position.
But if you take your faith seriously, and if your faith accompanies you into the office, cubicle or shop floor, that’s what you do.