Opinion: Keeping the trust in PR

By Martha Parham

Being honest and strategic in public relations.

I’m not sure about you, but I have received a lot of questions about the practice of public relations lately. Specifically, I have been asked how I would handle having to lie to the media. Of course, I answered quickly and heartily that I would not lie to the media or to the public and I could never work for anyone that would consider asking. For the record, I have not been asked to lie to the media. But I was heartbroken that our profession was fodder for negative conversation at the national level. This work that we all strive to do well has afforded me amazing opportunities to learn from real-life mentors that epitomize the best of what we do and how it is done thoughtfully, strategically, and honorably. I know I am not alone.

So, when I was asked about lying to the media, it was easy to be emphatic about my belief in the ethical practice of public relations. It felt good to be indignant about lying to the media. In fact, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently released a statement with regard to recent public discussions about honesty and the media.  In it, they condemn the use “alternative facts” and provide clarity that “honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.”

No, we don’t. But, we have all been faced with not being able to tell the media/public certain facts (e.g., legal and/or personnel matters). The most seasoned PR professional can tell you the many ways in which you can accomplish a non-comment without making an on-the-record “no-comment.” But, telling the media that you are not able to disclose facts is different than stating alternative or untrue facts.

But, are alternative facts a matter of perspective? Sometimes. Clearly when there is empirical evidence that supports or disputes stated information, then perspective may become irrelevant. But, perspective can and does make a difference in the way in which information is received. So my righteous indignation regarding lying to the media may not be so cut and dry.

It is a critical part of our jobs not only to report information in an ethical manner, but to take a step back and look at how the information will be received. Doing so will foster an open dialog and result in more strategic messaging. We are not reporters and it is incumbent upon us to craft our information platform in a way that forwards the mission of our colleges without compromising the public trust or our own set of ethics and standards. We must continue that work as an example of integrity in the public relations industry for our colleges, for the students and public we represent, and for ourselves.

This piece first appeared in Counsel, magazine of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an AACC Affiliate Council.

Martha Parham

is the senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. She leads the marketing, publications, media and public relations, and oversees AACC’s 21st Century Center.