This weekend we watched as the White House spokesman presented misinformation and then reprimanded the media for reporting facts. This comes on the heels of backlash over fake news in social media that has raised skepticism and created confusion in the public. I suspect this kind of blatant disregard for truth is contributing to plummeting levels of trust in media, government, and business as found in the Edelman Trust Barometer.
Notable honorees at the Institute for Public Relations’ (IPR) Distinguished Lecture series dinner back in November, Charlotte Otto and Pat Ford, both addressed this issue in their acceptance speeches. They wondered at how we find ourselves in a “post-truth” society with a diminished respect for integrity and accuracy. Can we as corporate communicators and public relations professionals help rebuild public trust in communication?
As the director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University, I’ve been considering this, and I would like to offer three ways the field can help restore respect for integrity in communication.
- Be uncompromising in your pursuit of truthfulness. Let’s hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity, regardless of what others do. That means being transparent in our decisions, prioritizing honesty, and as Arthur W. Page practiced, “Tell the truth” and “Prove it with action.” We have ethical standards to guide our practice (PRSA Code of Ethics and Page Principles), so let’s revisit them. They direct us to “protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information,” remain free of conflicts of interest, and disclose information that the public needs to make an informed decision. A recent blog post by Gary Sheffer, former CCO of GE and current board member for the Arthur W. Page Center, offers additional insights for gauging the truthfulness of our communication by reflecting on whether or not our communication is fact-based and built on discovery and open-mindedness. By valuing honesty and accuracy in our communication, and respecting our audiences, we hold a standard that the public can trust.
- Expect truthfulness from others. Beyond our personal standards, let’s expect honesty and integrity from our employees, our partners, our management and our other stakeholders. By rewarding integrity and refusing to accept misinformation in communication from others, we reinforce the importance of the truth in our organizations and our society. The Page Principles remind us that “…an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people” and that means setting standards for truthfulness and honesty for everyone related to the organization. I recently completed a study of ethics training in public relations agencies, and one thing I heard over and over in the interviews was that ethics begins at the top. Employees adopt behaviors that they see in their managers and leaders. I also learned that some public relations agencies include measures of integrity and ethics in their annual employee reviews. Ethics becomes more than a code of conduct but rather an actionable plan for assessing and promoting ethical behaviors.
- Celebrate professionals who model integrity in public communication. Organizations like IPR honor distinguished leaders in the public relations field. I believe we need to continue to find models of integrity in the public relations and journalism fields and hold them up as examples to aspire to in the field. By understanding how others have struggled with ethical dilemmas and made good choices or learned from their choices, we can see the path forward for us. At the Page Center we have been working for the past six months to create an annual award, the Foster Award Integrity in Public Communication, named in honor of our founder, Larry Foster. This year the award will be given to three exemplary professionals Ann Barkelew, founding general manager and senior partner of FleishmanHillard; Dick Martin, author and former executive vice president of public relations of AT&T; and Alan Murray, chief content officer of Time Inc. and editor-in-chief of Fortune magazine. If you want to learn more about the award or the dinner, to be held February 22 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, please see our announcement here.
If we agree with PRSA’s definition of public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics,” then we can see the value of honesty and integrity in dealings with our publics. Through clear and accurate communication we can continue to strengthen relationships, earning the trust of the public and reinforcing the importance of truthfulness in communication.
For more information about the Page Center Awards Dinner and the Larry Foster Award for Integrity, please visit here.
Denise Sevick Bortree, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of advertising/public relations at Penn State University. She is the director of the Arthur W. Page Center. Follow her on Twitter @dbortree.