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Let's Start With the Truth

by on November 18, 2013 6:20 AM

In recent days, the issue of public relations, how much the public needs to know and accuracy of information has been a focus in the news.

From the escalating costs of the Sandusky Scandal to the roll out nightmare that is Obamacare, the consequences of the "spin" seem to be everywhere.

Politicians (on both sides of the aisle), CEOs, and others in power seem to spend a lot of time and a lot of money trying to hit the rewind button after the initial public statement turns out to be a lie. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has again re-energized all of the conspiracy theorists who believe that we weren't told the truth about whodunit.

It's pretty simple in my opinion. Instead of hiring firms and professionals to craft a message, why not just tell the truth?

Telling the truth is a lesson we try to teach our kids. Fess up and take the consequences when you make a mistake. It will be far less painful than a lie that is compounded with more lies.

Not telling the truth has become such an accepted practice of government, business and other entities of power that we are becoming almost numb to it.

Lying is arguably part of human nature. I would wager a bet that there is not a parent or teacher out there who has not had to reinforce the truth versus lie issue when it comes to children. Research in child development has tried to assess at what point a child can understand the difference between truth and falsehood.

How early do kids understand that by painting a situation in an untruthful way can put them in better light or help to avoid consequences? Are there acceptable forms of not telling the truth (i.e. the white lie)? How does not telling the truth impact trust and relationships with others?

If we embellish, stretch the truth or only give partial details, it doesn't change the fact that it's a lie. I laughed last week after President Obama's press conference -- not because of what he said -- but because of how his words were interpreted by different news stations. Jumping back and forth between the various channels, the exact same press statement was picked apart, emphasized and interpreted so differently it begged the question. What is the truth? Maybe I'll just listen to whatever it is and decide myself.

And then there are the lies told at school and in the workplace. I've heard the "my grandmother died again this semester" lie so many times that, like many of my peers, I have started asking for an obituary or other documentation for the excused absence. There are people who call in sick when they really just want a long weekend. Students blame the computer, the roommate or even the dog when assignments or duties are incomplete. Have you ever made up an excuse when you really just don't want to go to the party?

I am not a public relations expert but have occasionally been called in to help communicate a message or details about an event or incident. I've been a boss and I'm a parent. It's amazing how easy it is to tell the truth.

On Saturday night, I happened upon the movie premier of The Challenger Disaster. Starring William Hurt as physicist Richard Feynman, the movie, which debuted simultaneously on both Discovery and the Science Channel, covers the post disaster investigation into what caused the 1986 shuttle tragedy. It portrayed Feynman's dogged efforts to pull up the rock and expose the lies, cover ups and conspiracies that came before and after the Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. At one point, Hurt's character asks "Why can't people just say things the way they are?" Ultimately, it was Feynman who exposed the lies that had come from NASA, contractor Morton-Thiokol and our government.

Regardless of political affiliation or party, we make that old joke and essentially give our elected officials permission to lie to us. "How can you tell a politician is lying? His or her lips are moving."

Consider the Sandusky scandal. It has been said that university's handling of the crimes committed by the convicted pedophile will be forever used as the example of what not to do in crisis management and public relations. It has been argued that "image" became more important than truth. Just think how different the outcome might have been if the powers that be had said "We were caught off guard and had no idea" and "Let us get gather some facts before reacting" rather than pointing fingers, developing fancy press statements and deflecting responsibility.

We hear the lie and begin to distrust everything the person says. A colleague of mine said it best. When trust is missing, other things fill in. Anger. Fear. Paranoia.

In this day and age of the internet, cell phone cameras and YouTube, it's almost shocking when people try to hang on to the lie. It reminds me of watching Bewitched when I was a kid. The whole premise of the show was humor based on the shenanigans of the cover up that Samantha was a witch but also the prevarication of Darren's boss and advertising executive Larry Tate.

I think I'm going to start a public relations business. My slogan will be "Why lie when the truth will work?"

It's ironic that the government has rules and consequences about what happens when someone lies to them and yet we almost expect our government to lie to us. It's even more ironic that we have a "truth in advertising" law -- enforced by the government – mandating that what we say about a product or invention and how we advertise it must be truthful. We need to start demanding that same accountability and honesty from those in power.

Apparently there is money to be made in helping organizations manage their public relations messages. Politicians, CEOs and others need help with crisis management, creating the spin and delivering a message. I have an idea. It's cheap and pretty easy. Why not just tell the truth?

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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