By Tim Hayes
One of my favorite perks as a middle-aged professional comes in visiting college classes as a guest speaker. Inevitably, standing before a class of young aspiring communicators, I know two questions will be coming my way: “How much do you make?” and “Have you ever had to lie?”
The first one’s easy – “That’s none of your business.” But the second takes a little more explanation and context. The short answer is “No,” which typically generates skeptical glances from the assembled journalism and PR majors, so I dive into the real world applications of how information gets generated, distributed, and processed between business and the media.
My good fortune put me in a small-market newspaper newsroom right out of college, a newly minted B.A. in journalism in my hand. As a cub reporter in the early 1980s, my daily mission was to find and write about both sides of every story, just as my professors drilled into my thick head as a student. Media’s role rested on its responsibility to remain objective, critical, balanced, fair. And that meant gathering information from every perspective related to a story, sifting through it, and presenting a comprehensive picture to the reader.
In time, I left the newsroom and entered the field of public relations, where the role changed into presenting my organization’s side of the story as accurately, powerfully, and persuasively as possible. My job no longer carried the charge of being balanced. Instead, it meant promoting the philosophy, practices, personalities, products, and perspective of my employer to the media.
It was up to those in the media to take the information I now made available to them, find an opposing or alternate viewpoint, and present a picture that balanced the two, in other words.
Back to the college classroom question of being pressured to lie in the course of performing my PR duties, the answer again has always been no. Does that mean that I and my various colleagues along the way have been selective in how our messages have been fashioned for release to the media? Absolutely. If you would label those “sins of omission,” so be it. Have we gone out of our way to list opposing opinions or help the media find those who would disagree with our organization’s point of view? Hell no – that’s their job.
In a publicly traded business, providing a return to shareholders is the number one responsibility, period. A successful business does that by producing a product or service that meets an identified need better than its competitors. Public relations supports that effort by protecting and promoting the business, thereby building goodwill and trust among its employees and customers. Outright lying would destroy that trust, as has been proven time and again over the years.
I can sleep at night knowing that anything I’ve ever written for an employer or client has been accurate and truthful in its own right – and would assert that 99 percent of my fellow professional communicators could say the same. And when I share that with the kids in college, they know it’s the truth.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting