Public relations in the age of alternative facts

Kathy-Vass-croppedBy Kathy Vass, PR Director

Jane Dvorak, 2017 National Chair of the Public Relations Society of America, was at Jackson Marketing last week where she spoke to members of Greenville’s SCPRSA chapter. Jane has visited numerous PRSA chapters across the country in the past few weeks where she outlines 2017 organization goals, and specifically addresses PRSA’s January statement on “alternative facts.”

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that the phrase “alternative facts” was coined on January 22 when Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway was interviewed by Chuck Todd of NBC News. Conway used the phrase to describe a statement by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on the crowd size at the January 20 inauguration. The phrase entered the mainstream at lightning speed and has sparked countless conversations about the dissemination of accurate information by PR professionals and maintaining truthfulness in media coverage. An online search for “alternative facts” returns 233 million results and the phrase even has a Wikipedia page.

PRSA board members felt it was important to respond to this new catchphrase and issued a statement on behalf of the organization’s 22,000 members following the Conway interview. It reads:

“Truth is the foundation of all effective communications. By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy.

The Public Relations Society of America, the nation’s largest communications association, sets the standard of ethical behavior for our 22,000 members through our Code of Ethics. Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals.

PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”

Jane commented on the PRSA statement during her visit here last week, and addressed what she believes to be PR’s role as the conscience of organizations.

“Our statement was in no way political. Facts are facts, plain and simple,” Jane said. “PR professionals are trust builders and we have an obligation to communicate with truthfulness and honesty in our representation.” Jane went on to say that while fake news and entertainment masquerading as news have clouded the public relations and media landscapes, objective reporting still exists.

Full disclosure. I was a newspaper reporter at the front-end of my career. I covered business, with occasional cops, courts and city councils sprinkled in. I covered union battles, more mill closings than I want to recall and the virtual collapse of the textile and apparel industry in South Carolina. I worked hard at presenting both sides of an issue. Was the steady decline in textile and apparel jobs due primarily to imports or modernization of the mills? Why did executives walk away with golden parachutes worth millions while production workers lost their retirements? There always were different opinions and perspectives. I knew my job was to try to present all sides and let readers draw their own conclusions. Did spokespeople stretch the truth on occasion? I believe they did, especially when it came to accusations leveraged against company officials by union organizers and vice versa during the nastiness of a union fight.

I don’t envy reporters today. The rush to be first sometimes overtakes an obligation to be accurate. And simply issuing a retraction after rushing to file a story that proves to be false doesn’t cut it, in my opinion. Media credibility is key to those of us who depend on reporters and editors to communicate our messages to the public and to members of the industries where our clients do business.

But for our part as PR professionals, we have an ethical obligation to an honest representation of the facts whether we work for a marketing firm in Greenville, SC or the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.