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Arment Dietrich

All the news that's fit to fake

By: Arment Dietrich | March 19, 2007 | 
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Fake news.  It’s a source of entertainment for millions.  Outlets like the Onion, Weekend Update on SNL, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report satisfy a satirical jones for folks looking for funny.  Fake news, as the Columbia Journalism Review points out, has been around forever, from muckrakers like William Randolph Hearst, tall tales and even mythology.  Tabloid headlines, from celebrity troubles to Bat Boy, are a great escape while waiting in line at the supermarket.

But when does fake news cross the line?  My take is when it is packaged as real news.  This is a debate that picked up a couple of years ago when it came out that the government manufactured VNRs to promote a health care agenda.  And when it became known that columnists Maggie Gallagher and Armstrong Williams were on a government payroll.  Same thing with a handful of El Nuevo Herald reporters who broadcast for U.S. government radio stations.  And when the Pentagon paid Iraqi newspapers to include good news in their pages.

Even members of Congress are on the spin train.  Take Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann (who has 23 foster children, by the way!).  Her campaign is giving talking points to her supporters, encouraging them to generate editorials and letters to the editor at regional media outlets.  There’s something smarmy about this.  Grassroots support is one thing, but this is Astroturf.

While it’s easy to take shots at the government, it might be difficult to step back and take a look at the PR industry.  I find it appalling, though not totally surprising, that people in our industry think it’s perfectly fine to lie if it’s going to enhance the appeal of their client. 

A recent U.K. forum hosted by PRWeek concluded that some PR practitioners don’t believe honesty is an essential part of public relations.  British PR guru Max Clifford, whose Web site boasts his ability to promote and protect clients, and academic Simon Goldsworthy told the crowd “that truthfulness is not necessarily the best PR policy.”  Clifford also told the crowd he has been “telling lies on behalf of my clients for 40 years”.  (It should be noted that executives from Vodafone and PR house Luther Pendragon — which also sounds like an ass-kicking poet/dragon slayer — pledged their commitment to the truth.)

Furthermore, says Martin Moore, out of 260 attendees “138 voted against the motion [that PR people should tell the truth] in last night’s PR Week sponsored debate that ‘PR has a duty to tell the truth‘, vs 124 for.”

I find this unbelievable.  We are in this business to make our clients look good, but when such an ethical line is breached, it is unconscionable.  No wonder PR is often frowned upon as an industry.

At first I thought our friends across the pond ate some bad fish and chips, but ethics codes are well documented by at least one British PR organization, CIPR.  The code of conduct instructs PR people to strive for integrity and honesty.

So what’s going on here?  Is this problem of being (un)truthful an issue in the U.S.?  At my company, we strive to ethical in everything we do and would have a major problem conducting PR based on lies. 

To me and my young colleagues, this is a shocking indictment of what’s wrong in PR.  Lying is not the reason I got into this business.  No, I did it to become a clear and creative communicator.  Lies have no place in my office.

At least we can rest easy knowing that, perhaps for once, Clifford told the truth.  Even if it is bullshit.

 

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