In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness.” In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries anointed “post-truth” as the international word of the year.

Now, less than a month into 2017, phrases like “alternative facts” makes it feel as if we are sliding toward the Orwellian province of doublespeak.

Whenever I write, I reflexively move to source, to hyperlink, to prove, to validate. That is – and must remain – an essential part of our work and responsibility as communications professionals. Just as it is for journalists.

Yet, today, the very act of citation feels as if it is becoming devalued. If you say something enough, does it make it “true”? Even baseless claims – repeated endlessly through the echo chambers of social media – can become “fact” to those uninterested in sourcing. There is a danger to our society becoming disengaged from the high stakes of defending actual, provable reality.

A “No Spin” Zone

There is a common misconception that PR is all about “spin.” Yet the majority of us in this field are actually highly-attuned to ethical issues and decision-making. We care about the truth of what we promote. We work to hold ourselves and our clients accountable. And we deeply value the critical importance of our nation’s media.

Political affiliations aside, every person should be concerned about attacks that undermine our free press – the cornerstone of any vital and strong democracy. We should worry about falsehoods being asserted as facts (“alternative” or otherwise). And we should resist moves toward censorship.

As a board member of The PR Council, I join my colleagues in reasserting core points from our Code of Ethics & Principles. Most relevant to these discussions are numbers 4 and 5:

4. We are committed to accuracy

5. We believe that our clients and the public are best served when third party relationships with spokespeople, bloggers, partners and allies are open and transparent.

We also stand with the PRSA in its statement rebuking of the concept of “alternative facts” and sharing its own Code of Ethics.

The deeper dialogue here is just beginning and we must actively engage in it. These issues raise essential questions for those in communications fields – particularly public relations professionals.

  • What is the responsibility of an organization for the truth of information it releases into the public domain?
  • What are the principles of a credible news organization?
  • When can “positioning” go too far?
  • What responsibility do organizations have to be transparent with their publics?
  • How can communications professionals best assess when a client (of any kind) is crossing an ethical line?
  • How should a PR professional or spokesperson respond when asked (knowingly or unknowingly) to promote a position that is verifiably false?
  • When should a PR professional simply say “no”?
  • What is the role and importance of a free press in our nation or any democracy?
  • Where is the line between acknowledging a range of voices and perspectives, versus implicitly endorsing half- or non-truths?

The PR Council intends to dig into these and other questions in a series of posts contributed by its members. Communications professionals have a mandate to lead this discussion. It cuts to the heart of our profession. And it has serious and lasting implications for our society.

Or…we could just ignore it all, retreating into a bubble of YouTube cat videos and those Instagram photos of your friend’s fabulous meals. But in the parlance of Orwell’s doublespeak, that would be “doubleplusungood.”

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