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:
- Acted with humility
- Listened with great intensity
- Made decisions carefully
- 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.
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Forbes article at
Very nice article, Len. I think we admire crafty, silver-tongued public figures…until we catch them in their lies. Hard to have it both ways.
Len, this is a great grounding post. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
Dannielle, Joseph and Andrew–thanks for your comments. Best, Len.