Truth problems

About the author

Vincenzo Magagna prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Vincenzo Magagna

Does PR have a truth problem? In a sense, the answer must surely be yes – we all have truth problems these days. The spread of disinformation and misinformation is a global issue which is making it harder for people to know the truth, reducing the pool of universally agreed facts and eroding trust across society.

The Edelman Trust Barometer has picked up this trend since at least 2018, but the 2021 edition declared an ‘epidemic of misinformation’ (or infodemic) which has driven trust in all news sources (including social, owned and traditional media) to record lows.

The recent wave of disinformation and misinformation relating to COVID-19 has played a part in this, but the issue predates the pandemic and is linked to profound changes in the media and technology landscape as well as other social, political and economic factors. In 2018, the LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission described disinformation and misinformation as the result of a systemic information crisis, which threatens people’s decision making, national security and democratic government.

Disinformation is false information which is deliberately created to cause harm or obtain an advantage of some kind, while misinformation is information that is false, but not created with harmful intentions.

Disinformation campaigns by hostile foreign actors have been blamed for influencing the outcome of elections in countries around the world, while vaccine-related misinformation has been a serious threat to global public health since well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is clearly a major challenge for society, but it is an especially urgent issue for PR. A profession that focuses on helping organisations build strong, trusting relationships with their stakeholders cannot but be concerned by the erosion of public trust in most institutions and sources of information. Disinformation and misinformation make it harder for leaders to get their message heard and hamper their ability to make effective decisions. It is therefore no wonder that the issue has attracted growing attention within the profession.

In 2019 the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) started publishing an annual report on the spread of disinformation in US society, and earlier this year the Academic Society for Management & Communication, a German think tank, identified ‘denialism’ (an attitude which leads people to reject universally valid facts in favour of controversial ideas and conspiracy theories) as one of the key challenges for corporate communications in 2021.

PR’s own truth problem

Some people would argue that there is another sense in which PR has a truth problem, one that makes it less than ideally placed to respond to the challenge of disinformation and misinformation. Our profession has long struggled with its own reputation when it comes to truthfulness. While some of PR’s most vociferous critics paint it as inherently mendacious, research on public perceptions of PR show it is widely regarded with some suspicion when it comes to honesty and transparency. A US study on how PR practitioners are perceived by the public found that while practitioners were described in positive terms overall, perceptions regarding their ethical traits were negative and the most common word used to describe them was ‘liar’.

According to the European Communication Monitor 2019, PR people themselves see the profession as enjoying low levels of trust within society, with survey respondents feeling that their profession was only trusted by 27% of ordinary people. Similarly, research by IPR has shown that only 26% of Americans have at least ‘some’ trust in PR professionals, while 58% say that PR professionals are at least ‘somewhat’ responsible for spreading disinformation. The latter charge is especially troubling.

Unfortunately, these negative perceptions may not be entirely unfounded. In his book ‘Post-Truth Public Relations’, published last year just before the start of the pandemic, Gareth Thompson discussed a range of ways in which PR professionals have adapted to a ‘post-truth’ environment, sometimes exploiting its features (e.g. the emergence of social media platforms as major sources of news) in a way that further erodes trust in information sources and weakens reliance on facts.

If PR is perceived to be, or indeed is, part of the problem, how can PR people begin to respond to it?

Being part of the solution

The best way for PR to show that it can be part of the solution is to take action against misinformation and disinformation. Actions really do speak louder than words, particularly in a misinformation-filled world.

The good news is that the skillset of PR people is particularly suited, indeed essential, to fighting disinformation and misinformation. A guide to COVID-19 vaccine communications developed as part of the United Nations’ Verified initiative identified a set of principles for practitioners which draws on expertise in fields such as psychology, behavioural science and science communication. The guide rejects an ‘information deficit’ model of communication, which focuses on information as the main driver for people’s choices, and highlights instead the role played by emotions, worldviews, moral values and identities in driving people’s choices and behaviours. Recommendations for practitioners include listening to the audience, using the right messengers (e.g. trusted leaders within target communities), providing a narrative, and evoking the right emotions (for example avoiding the use of shame in calls to action, and focusing on pride instead). Listening, storytelling, understanding what makes audiences tick – all these skills have long been part of PR practitioners’ toolbox.

The response to COVID-19 has brought growing recognition of the importance of PR as a strategic management function, and PR people’s role in addressing misinformation and disinformation has also been specifically recognised. A report by the UK government’s COVID-19 Communications Advisory Panel highlighted how communications professionals worked in partnership with experts across government and technology companies to respond to the challenge. This included applying specific tools to fight disinformation (such as the government’s RESIST Counter Disinformation Toolkit) and working with platforms (social media and search engines) to remove harmful content and promote public health campaigns through reliable sources.

The fight against misinformation and disinformation is also high on the agenda for strategic communications in the private sector. The Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, formed in March 2021, set out to explore, among other things, “the growing challenge of mis- and disinformation campaigns against private industry and companies.” Meanwhile, since declaring in the latest edition of its annual Trust Barometer that “the biggest opportunity to earn business trust is guarding information quality,” Edelman has launched Disinformation Shield, a tool which uses proprietary technology to help clients combat disinformation before it spreads.

This suggests that PR people should indeed be front and centre in providing a solution to the challenge of disinformation and misinformation.

The only way is ethics…

Not so fast, you might say at this point. Aren’t the skills that PR can bring to the fight against disinformation the same skills it can use, and sometimes has used, to create and propagate disinformation? This is certainly true, and we only need to consider the debates about whitewashing and greenwashing to be reminded of it.

Does this mean that the prospects of PR being part of the solution to the crisis of disinformation and misinformation are doomed from the start? There is no need to be so pessimistic. If the powerful tools at PR people’s disposal were not open to misuse, there would arguably be less of a need for PR ethics. As it is, ethical challenges are an inescapable part of life for any profession. According to the European Communication Monitor 2020, around 65% of PR professionals surveyed say they experience ethical challenges in their day to day work, and both the frequency of challenges and the share of affected communicators have grown in the last few years.

What’s needed is first of all a clear commitment among PR people not to engage in disinformation, which must be enshrined in professional codes of conduct. Existing codes do include provisions around honesty and integrity that go some way towards addressing the issue, but in some cases the wording could be clearer.

The CIPR’s own Code of Conduct, for example, binds members to “deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public”, and one of the examples of good PR practice provided in the code under the heading ‘Integrity and honesty’ is “Checking the reliability and accuracy of information before dissemination.” This seems somewhat weak in the face of the challenge posed by misinformation and disinformation. Other codes include stronger and arguably more suitable wording, for example the Global Alliance code of ethics (“We will adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of clients and employers.”). There are broader questions on whether PR codes of conduct have any ‘teeth’, and how many PR people they cover in the first place, but a clearer commitment to truthfulness within the codes would be a step in the right direction.

There must also be greater recognition within the profession of the key role PR people can and should play in fighting misinformation and disinformation, and of the benefits this brings. There are clear advantages for clients and organisations in responding effectively to what is increasingly seen as a strategic threat. Society also benefits if organisations develop stronger, more trusting relationships with their stakeholders, as this may increase both parties’ resilience to disinformation.

At a time when organisations are increasingly purpose-driven and environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations have replaced a narrower focus on corporate social responsibility, this public interest dimension of tackling misinformation and disinformation can help PR reinforce its place as a strategic management function.

On a day-to-day level, PR people must practice good information hygiene themselves, by learning to recognise disinformation and misinformation and being careful about what they share online in order to help stop its spread. If we are not able to do this within our personal sphere, we certainly won’t be able to address the issue credibly and effectively within our work.

… but mind the moral maze

While embracing a commitment to truthfulness and joining the fight against disinformation, PR people must be alert to the complexities of operating ethically within this space. These go beyond the familiar tension between pursuing organisational/client objectives and acting in the public interest. For example, even a public-spirited effort to counter disinformation can run the risk of stifling legitimate discussion or suppressing marginal viewpoints which could, if properly examined through public debate, become part of a new consensus. Some of the central issues which have faced organisations in the last few years, from #MeToo to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, can partly be seen as a societal reckoning with previously disregarded or suppressed truths.

This shows that a commitment to truthfulness is about more than just adherence to facts, it is also about supporting meaningful accountability – just as disinformation is not only a matter of lying, it’s about pursuing power by placing others in a position of informational disadvantage. Dick Martin, former Chief Communications Officer at AT&T, captured this well in a blog post for Global Alliance’s Ethics Month earlier this year. Recognising that we live in a time of ‘alternative facts’, Martin offers a working definition of truth in the practice of PR: “Truth is all the information a reasonable person needs to make an intelligent, voluntary decision, free of coercion.”

Take a moment to think about that. This is not a philosopher’s definition of truth, but it does capture a key insight for PR people: tackling misinformation and disinformation, and refraining from spreading it, means enabling our stakeholders to make exactly this kind of free, intelligent decisions. This is surely a win-win scenario – and making it happen is a strategic opportunity which is there for all PR people to seize. 


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