January 18, 2021

Integrity in Communications is the Key to Fair and Free Press

The Forbes piece “A Truth Reckoning: Why We’re Holding Those Who Lied For Trump Accountable,” by Randall Lane (Jan 7, 2021), examines the impact of lying for your boss – in this case, the outgoing president of the United States. Lane puts potential corporate suitors of Trump’s former comms staff on notice: hire anyone who lied on behalf of Trump, and “Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie.” 

Lane puts it succinctly: “Ultimately in PR, core credibility is the coin of the realm.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In my time handling media relations for some of the biggest challenges for my employers – the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigation at Avon, the Enron crisis at Moody’s – telling the truth was never “optional.”  Forging mutually respectful relationships with smart, tough journalists at the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters and more was critical. 

Journalists have a job to do—understand the facts and report the truth.  Of course, they all want to get a nugget no one else has reported, and that’s on them.  But as the corporate communications lead with media, my job has always been to clarify facts, ensure accuracy and comment when possible.  Never would I be able to do that if I made up facts to throw the story into a more favorable light.  

Thankfully, for almost my entire career I have only supported leaders and been guided by mentors who expect nothing less than full credibility in how I conducted myself on their behalf in my interactions with journalists.

The relationship between journalists and communications staff should be professional not contentious. 

In my case, the reporters who ask the hardest questions are my favorite, and I am happy to say many years (and decades) later, I even consider some who covered the biggest challenges my friends. Of course, we still maintain the line; we don’t revisit the past, we don’t discuss (and I will never disclose) non-public information, even for situations that no longer hold any relevance.  Nor would these journalists ask me to. They are pros and I take my role (and my past roles) seriously.

Over the last four years, I’ve watched (and been shocked by) the devolving civility between elected officials, press secretaries and communications staff, and the press. When the highest office refutes solid evidence and data with “alternative facts” – it can only go downhill from there. Journalists play a role too, sinking to personal attacks over reporting merely the facts.  But who can blame them? When the president tweets derogatory, personal digs at a reporter, do we have anywhere to go but down?

Well, we can still commit to taking the higher road. Hacks and Flaks alike. (Read that with the endearing tone with which I typed it, please.)

It's possible for any of us to wind up in a situation where we are asked to abandon our morals, integrity and reason in order to advance someone else's narrative... how we choose to respond (even if no one ever hears about it) defines us.

I once didn't take seriously enough the advice from a smart, tough and fair journalist who was covering a company courting me years ago. At the time, I pinged him to see if he had thoughts on the comms team and the open role before I accepted. He warned me we’d have our “first fight” if I took the job, because the company was notorious for treating journalists badly and had unfair, unrealistic expectations about the role of the press. 

I laughed, because I don’t fight with journalists. I do my job, well, and I respect reporters for doing theirs. Then, I accepted the job. Immediately I could see he was right. I found myself in a situation where my employer took liberties with facts, concocted and seeded rumors to drive press coverage that could impact closed-door discussions, and chastised journalists on a regular basis if unfavorable news was reported (despite its accuracy). Not the right environment for me - or any communications professional with integrity.

It's time to mend relationships and move forward.

As we ride out this COVID crisis, confronted by racial inequality and a deeply divided nation, so many relationships have to heal.  The relationship between public information officers and the press is no exception. 

Those communicators who have proven again and again that personal allegiance to an unscrupulous boss is more important than honesty, facts and truth will not be able to advance the important communications strategies of future employers, because integrity is a two-way street and the trust has already eroded.

**A footnote on this post: not everyone is in a position to up and walk away from a paying job -- clearly. For most of us it takes time and planning to make a move, but if you're in an organization where you're asked to set aside your integrity, not trying to leave can make you complicit in the deception. If you find yourself in this kind of a situation - talk to a mentor, a friend, a former boss... talk to me!

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