When a client hires a PR pro they are relying on a number of different traits that that person (or firm) projects during the RFP or pitching process. These will vary from sector to sector but certainly include strategic thinking, writing skills, relationships with press (or influencers), etc. Perhaps chief among these are the person’s trustworthiness. The client wants to know they can inform the PR pro of upcoming notable company events or newsworthy announcements – everything from news of employee cuts to earnings reports – and be secure in the knowledge the pro will keep this information close to their chest.
So isn’t it ironic that along with being able to trust a firm with its deepest and darkest secrets, the client must also, buried somewhere in their hearts, believe the firm can reliably and convincingly — lie.
It’s almost inevitable that in a flack’s lifetime they will receive confidential information which the public will eventually, or should, know (or in a worst case scenario – must never find out). This information can be anything from a pending product recall or a data breach which the authorities have told the company to keep quiet (pending an investigation) to proper posturing in the face of a legal challenge or competing product launch. Untrained and unprepared delivery of the ‘wrong’ lie or delivering it improperly can be as telling as blurting out the truth after 3 Manhattans after work. Consider how often we laugh (or grimace) at a ‘no comment’ response from any spokesperson or the skepticism with which we view any sex scandal in which there is a complete denial of the alleged facts.
The construction of the lie (or to make it more politically correct — cover story) itself must also work within existing facts, and simultaneously fit into what the post-news story will be. Anything less and some relationship within the client-pro framework will take a credibility hit.
This isn’t going to turn into a primer on building a suitable cover story, but the journalists we work with on a daily basis aren’t stupid. If in the face of a brewing scandal the publicist’s comment is “No, we haven’t heard any reports of faulty products” and the official story the next day starts with “In the weeks since we first learned of this defect…” our reliability and trustworthiness is shot. And while many among the 4th estate may accept this is part of the game we all play, the doubt will linger – either you’ve intentionally lied to them or management hasn’t trusted you with all of the relevant info. Either way it’s brownie points and goodwill that have been lost.
And while this may not apply to all sectors, even the most “innocent” of the possible sectors, non-profits have their occasional finance problem or scandal that may need to be dealt with. So the odds of any of us having to deal with this scenario are pretty good.
And so, back to our original question – how odd is it, that at some level we’re being selected for (among other factors), our trustworthiness and simultaneously the faith that, if needed, we can believably lie through our teeth (but never to the client, of course).