OPINION – Truth, lies and the PR game

5 min read
Jezz Farr

If press relations managers are caught lying to the media, it is impossible to return to a position where people automatically believe anything they say. Why would they? Michelle Mone, the UK baroness and businesswoman who recently admitted misleading the media, is currently finding this out to her cost.

In the world of PR, you can knowingly lie only once. Then you are doomed. Firstly, journalists have long memories; secondly, they chat to each other. A PR caught lying will be tagged, flagged and made into a “Wanted” poster to be stuck on the walls of newsrooms across the land.

And rightly so. A PR's job is not to defend an institution at all costs; it is to ensure the media has the facts and the context. The latter can sometimes have different shades but no one benefits from outright lying, misleading or omission – not the firm, not the journalist or their readers, and definitely not the PR.

I have known bankers who have certainly tried, if not to lie, to manipulate the truth when talking to the media. Even worse, I have been lied to myself by my colleague bankers. I have seen situations where PRs have innocently perpetuated that lie to a journalist. When the PR finds out, they are faced with the option of maintaining their lie or dropping the banker in it.

I know what I would do. PRs trade on their reputation for straight, honest communication. This reputation takes years to build within a community trained and experienced in kicking the tyres of anything a bank representative says. And, ultimately, a PR's reputation transcends the organisation they happen to be working for that year. That might be a truth employers are reluctant to hear but that is also the reason you should pay good money for good PRs.

Stand up guy

So what do you do when a senior banker, one used to an army of acolytes fulfilling their every whim, seeks to misrepresent what you know to be the truth to the outside world? The obvious answer is to stand up to them and prevent them abusing their office. When a banker lies, the bank lies and a PR’s job is to represent the organisation.

I remember confronting one very senior banker who wanted to distort the context surrounding his departure from the bank. He suggested changing the opening sentence of the memo announcing his exit to say he had “chosen” to leave. He hadn’t – far from it – and I reminded him of that. He sniffed unhappily and looked at his soon-to-be ex-boss for support. Worryingly, his boss didn't seem too bothered with the inaccurate wording, I think on the grounds he wanted this exercise to be over with quickly and smoothly.

The issue was taken to the head of risk who, having been briefed, barely raised his eyes off some other documents he had been studying throughout and said, “That’s not true. So, no,” and returned to reading his papers. I liked him a lot.

Gut reaction

Lies are often in the form of denials. And the denials are often the panicky gut reaction of someone suddenly caught out. Far better is to keep your head down and don’t say anything until the dust settles. A “no comment” won’t necessarily prevent a story but it does prevent a lie. And a measure of a good organisation is how it reacts to something unexpected and negative. Lying is not a good metric, even if it happens in the heat of battle.

A “no comment” can buy time for an organisation that will at some point be expected to say something. It is neither an admission nor a denial but it gives a journalist a formal response that they can use in a story.

And when the dust eventually settles, which it will, more thoughtful and considered language can be employed. This can often be an opportunity for an organisation or individual to show their mettle, to prove to the world that even when things go wrong, they are capable of doing the right thing.

If Mone had spent less time denying her involvement with a PPE supplier accused of profiteering from government contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic – and threatening journalists who reported those allegations – she wouldn’t be in such a hole. But it's too late for that now.

Jezz Farr has been a senior communications adviser to major international banks for more than 25 years.