Honesty and Public Relations

by admin on May 29, 2012 · 4 comments


After thirty-two years of speaking to the media and tens of thousands of interviews I’ve come to recognize that the most difficult part of the public affairs profession is communication honesty.

It’s an observation and concern shared by many in our profession. It’s simply too tempting for many to bend the truth to the point where it borders on dishonesty.

We defend our agencies and provide context and facts.  We advocate. We are not expected to do the reporter’s job by filling in the blanks.

But we are obligated to answer direct questions honestly.

We seem to celebrate the late Steve Jobs and the art of purposeful evasiveness. We embrace politicians and those who spin facts on their behalf.  We accept corporate dishonesty as business as usual. Along the way, some get confused as to ethical boundaries.

The Value of Honest Communication:

An article (link below) by Forbes writer Jack Zenger paints a touching and compelling story about the value of honest communication. It’s a tragic story about the death of a son and a physician who described how his son’s cancer “had returned with an astonishing vengeance” and his son’s acknowledgement that he was going to die.

Zenger applies the tragic experience to life’s lessons in business where he observes, “One of the fundamental principles of good leadership is the willingness to treat others with respect.  Our ability and courage to speak honestly with one another is most certainly at the heart of treating one another with respect.  Indeed our research on this leadership quality of integrity paints an interesting picture.  We found that leaders who received high scores on honesty and integrity also received high scores on the following five behaviors:

  1. Approachable
  2. Acted with humility
  3. Listened with great intensity
  4. Made decisions carefully
  5. Acted assertively”

Older and Wiser Veterans:

All of us wrestle with the concept of honesty and what it means personally and professionally.

Reporters and the public judge people as well as institutions. The ability of any organization to develop a reputation for open and honest communications becomes the bedrock for favorable public opinion. That’s done by the people who represent them.

I thank God that I’m lucky enough to work for people who understand that honesty, even when it has tough consequences, is a prerequisite for  good reputation management.

When I started out in the profession I sought the advice of older and wiser veterans of the public affairs profession.

It wasn’t a discussion of spinning stories or fooling the public; it was an ethics lesson that basic values of integrity, hard work, superb organizational and national knowledge, being available, meeting deadlines and answering direct questions honestly as being necessary for a life in public affairs. Even hard-bitten skeptical reporters would eventually respect you (and your organization)  if you stuck to those values.

Reporters would, in turn, report honestly but ethically about you and your agency.  Agencies not practicing these principals suffered damage when the opportunity presented itself.

Simple values in business, simple values in public affairs, simple values in life. It seems that Ben Franklin and the Scouts had it right all along.

Best, Len.

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Forbes article at




Jim Grandone May 30, 2012 at 10:17 am

As a 25-year veteran of public relations, public affairs and as a campaign press secretary for federal political campaigns and local referendums. I believe that honesty is a hallmark of professional public relations/media relations. First of all, if I ever told a lie to a reporter, that reporter would never trust me again. In a profession that is based solely on trust, such an occurrence would be disastrous for my career and for the profession. I would never lie to a working member of the press for a client and have fired clients who withheld information from me to mislead reporters.
I own Grandone Media Strategies. Prior to that, I served clients at Edelman and Fleishman Hillard. The worst practice I saw was being non-responsive; a practice I cannot justify. In communications, you have two fundamental rights. They are to speak and not to speak. If it is in the client’s and the public’s interest to speak, then do so. If it is a matter of a scurrilous question, you have the right to decline to respond. You do not have the right to mislead or be dishonest.
That is a professional approach. Address questions; do not skirt them. If a question is ridiculous, you should be professional enough to bridge back to the point of the discussion. If not, find another career.
We are consistently embarrassed by amateurs claiming to be professionals and conducting themselves like fools. Those of us who have been in this business for decades get the blowback from “PR stunts” that accomplish nothing more than sensationalism for a client. Fifteen minutes of fame is not worth ruining one’s reputation.
So, know with whom you are dealing. Do not arbitrarily dismiss PR as fluff. Some of us have self respect and some of us were in journalism before going into public relations. We still maintain ethical standards and want to help, not mislead, working journalists.
Hopefully, you will look at public relations as it is; a multifaceted profession. And, as with all aspects of business, there are pros and there are amateurs.

admin May 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Hi Jim: Agree to everything; brilliantly stated. It seems that experienced public affairs professionals (the group I sought at the beginning of my career) agree as to basic principles. Many thanks for your comments. Best, Len.

Emily February 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I really enjoyed your article on honesty in public relations. I am currently a public relations major taking my intro to pr class. My professor said that honesty is one of the most important parts to being in the public relations field. Currently as well I am working on a case study concerning the pioneers of pr, one of them being Ivy Ledbetter Lee whose main focus was that even if it hurt the company it just ment it was something the company had to fix so they would no longer worry about it causing damage to their image.

admin February 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Hi Emily: Congratulations on your career choice. Just note that there are a variety of companies out there that have difficulty being honest. Thanks for writing. Best, Len.

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