Lies that matter and lies that don’t
“There are lies that matter and lies that don’t” said Boris Johnson’s former communications adviser Guto Harri on The Newsagents podcast last week when defending his role working for Johnson as further lockdown breaches emerge.
Meanwhile Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s aides were found to have repeatedly denied that she had been caught speeding, when asked by Mirror journalists last month, claiming it was “nonsense” and suggested someone was spreading “scurrilous” rumours about her. She has since admitted speeding.
None of this will come as a huge surprise to anyone given the political landscape over the last few years but it’s a reminder of the impact of untruths when it comes to communications. In a media environment where we are exposed to more misinformation than ever before, trusted sources are invaluable.
Whether you are speaking to journalists, communicating to employees or clients, the deterioration of trust can cause huge problems for those working in legal PR or internal communications.
Of course, we are there to help our clients put their best foot forward when it comes to publicising a news story or handling negative news. We put across their perspective, advocate for them, communicating in a way that paints their firm in the best possible light and highlights successes. Lying however, either to journalists or to the audiences you are communicating with, is a cardinal sin and will store up big problems for the future.
It doesn’t matter how well-crafted your message is if your organisation is not considered to be a trusted source. Many of us are becoming more sceptical about what we read, so having integrity and being known for being straight in your communications is fundamentally important.
For PR professionals, good relationships with journalists are crucial, especially if you are working in crisis communications. You may be speaking to journalists on background to give context to what is happening, or be on hand to clarify elements of the story. If you have been found to have passed on misinformation in the past, that job is going to be very difficult to do. If your integrity is in doubt, you shouldn’t be surprised if journalists go elsewhere to get the ‘real story’, or stick to a line even when you have tried to explain it is not what actually happened.
In the midst of a media crisis, lying might be the easy way out, but it can cause a story to escalate even further if that lie is exposed. Perhaps something that may appear to be a small detail early on in the development of a story can become hugely significant later on.
In internal communications, being trusted by employees is crucial. If employees don’t believe what you are telling them, rumours develop, people go to other sources within your organisation and a lack of credibility can ultimately lead to poor motivation, a lack of loyalty, employees looking to leave and reputational damage.
It it’s not always easy for be fully transparent, there may be legal constraints on what can be said, a duty of care to an employee or issues around client confidentiality. Sometimes a no comment response might be the only option in answer to tricky questions, but even this is better than telling a downright lie that could come back to haunt you. The handling of a story and the need to get through the next news cycle must take into account the long-term impact a deterioration in trust can have, both on your own reputation as a PR professional and on the organisations you represent. Ultimately, is lying worth it to save face? The answer is almost always a definite no.