Wednesday, July 23, 2008

To be honest

People in public relations are sometimes accused of being "paid liars". This misses the point. According to communications consultant Peter O'Malley:
In all instances, on both practical and legal grounds, effective public relations means not lying or defaming. But when perceived or real culpability is high, damage control inherently requires that engaged PR practitioners not volunteer facts they may know which may be true and may even be important to getting at the "truth" of the matter, but the disclosure of which would be harmful to the client's interest.
So lying is out (at least in principle), but that doesn't mean we'll be getting the whole truth. O'Malley continues:
And it frequently requires being steadfast in characterizing a "nearly empty" bottle as being "almost full". We may like to call all this "focused messaging", but in plain language, it means being highly selective in the presentation of information. Ultimately, it may mean being disingenuously mule-headed, and even secretive. In many settings, this may serve the client's interests, but it does not serve to enlighten the public.
Stronger forms of public relations are sometimes termed "spin". As Wikipedia puts it:
In public relations, spin is a usually pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation; it is a "polite" synonym for propaganda. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.
The Wikipedia entry on propaganda sheds still more light on this:
As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.
So the trick isn't to tell lies, it's to carefully cherry-pick facts and use them to "encourage a particular synthesis". William Blake put it well:
A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
"Auguries of Innocence," Poems from the Pickering Manuscript
Note that the term "lying by omission" obscures this somewhat. The Wikipedia entry for lie provides this description:
One lies by omission by omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. A husband may tell his wife he was out at a store, which is true, but lie by omitting the fact that he also visited his mistress.
But this raises all kinds of difficulties. To what extent is a person responsible for correcting other people's presumed misconceptions? In fact, "lying by omission" is generally not considered to be lying per se but rather part of the broader class of behaviour we call deception.

Follow the money

Selective presentation of facts may not necessarily be deceptive. In our adversarial legal system, lawyers are expected to argue for one side or the other. The hope is that the truth will come out in the wash. Similarly, we expect a company spokesperson to represent the company's interests. Knowing whose interests a person is representing allows us to decide how to weigh the arguments they present.

Experts are a special case. Whether they are scientists, economists, policy specialists, or what have you, we often believe (or hope) that they are relatively unbiased. The bad news is that bias is ubiquitous. The good news is that a great deal of work has been done to try to identify different sources of bias. (See, for example, Wikipedia's list of different types of cognitive bias.) One straightforward source is bias is financial. Experts (and the journalists who quote them) should reveal possible financial conflicts of interest.

We'd also like to believe that media reports are relatively unbiased. Sadly it's not always so. In January of this year, the Toronto Star published an article titled Top Ten Health Scares, "condensed from the American Council on Science and Health's list of medical stories that made us worry unnecessarily in 2007". As I noted in a previous post, the ACSH is an industry front group. Getting their don't-worry-be-happy message into the pages of a major newspaper—not as advertising, but as content—is PR gold. Imagine the article was instead a full-page advertisement, titled "The Chemical Industry Presents the Top Ten Health Scares".

As an article in the PR Watch Newsletter put it:
In examining organizations like ACSH, therefore, the key question is not, "Are they paid liars?" It is more meaningful to simply ask, "Who funds them, and whose interests do they serve?"

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Blogger pj said...

And yet, when you look at things like press releases you often see falsehoods that appear to be due to a complete disregard for whether the words accurately convey what the truth of a situation is.

In my own field of science this is particularly noticeable - and it becomes a form of lying through complete disregard for the truth.

1:38 PM, July 24, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I'm using what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls "the most common definition of lying": to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that that other person believe that statement to be true.

This excludes falsehoods that are due to even the most egregious sloppiness. However this in no way excuses them. There are other words that are no less damning. To say that someone is showing a complete disregard for the truth is not the same as saying they are lying. In some respects I think it's worse!

From an optimistic perspective, I hope that we can all aim to behave with honesty and integrity. Incidentally, the entry on integrity from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems interesting—and of course it raises all kinds of other questions!

3:51 PM, July 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting blogging about lying...unfortunately it is much easier for people to lie in it's various forms than to regain the trust with our friends and family...because then others are second guessing everything we say and do...

12:48 AM, August 31, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Interesting point. I think that when it comes to personal relationships, these considerations only get more complex. None of us can claim to have never deceived. We all depend on the forgiveness of friends and family.

10:37 PM, August 31, 2008  
Blogger sallreen said...

Gods in this sense replace and extend pre-existing controls on bad behaviour derived from reputation and reciprocity. In small groups we know that all the other members are keeping score. When these grow bigger "reminders of God may not only reduce cheating, but may also increase generosity toward strangers as much as reminders of secular institutions promoting prosocial behaviour".
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