Bridging the Gap Between Truth and Transparency

During his presentation to the World Public Relations Forum on May 29, 2016, Eric Bergman stated his view that public relations professionals have an opportunity to carve out a new area of practice globally and become more trusted advisors to clients. To do this, PR professionals need to bridge the gap between truth and transparency, and virtually eliminate the focus on bridging to messages.

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Bergman covered three topics during his presentation. First, he defined a number of terms. Second, he provided examples of how it is possible to be truthful, but not transparent. Third, he demonstrated how the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely not only builds better understanding, but brings together truth and transparency.

Bergman began by defining four terms: lying, deception, spin and transparency. Quoting philosopher Sissela Bok, he explained that lying occurs when someone makes a statement that they believe to be untrue at the time they said it, even if that statement ends up being true at a later date. Deception occurs when someone creates an impression from the facts that they themselves do not believe, even if the facts are true.

“The best definition of spin I’ve ever seen was from a paper by John Mearsheimer to the American Political Association,” Bergman said. “He defined spin as arranging facts in way that portrays the individual or organization in the most positive light.”

A resume, for example, is a perfect example of spin. “If the facts are correct and the impression left by the facts is correct,” Bergman explained, “there is nothing wrong with spin.”

Bergman then defined transparency in three words: ask me anything. This means answering as many questions as possible, but clearly and concisely. “If someone stands in front a group and answers 1,000 questions clearly and concisely in two hours, can that person lay claim to transparency?” asks Bergman. “Of course. I have nothing to hide, so ask me anything. But if they barely pay lip service to the question and bridge to what is important to them or their organization, can they lay claim to transparency? Probably not.”

Bergman concluded the first section by pointing out that the bridge between truth and transparency is the question and answer process. “To protect themselves from lies, deception and spin, people ask questions, and that trend will only accelerate,” he explained. “People want answers. As communications professionals, our objective should be to counsel our clients to provide answers, not ignore questions and talk about what’s important to the organization.”

In the second section of his presentation, Bergman explained how it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. One example he often uses to explain the difference is of a real estate agent showing a customer a potential home. The customer asks: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent replies by saying: “Talk of school often reminds me of school taxes. Did you know that this is one of the lowest assessed areas in the region? Imagine all the money you will be able to save for your child’s post-secondary education.”

What would the customer’s next question be? Most likely: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent then replies by saying: “School time is important, but so is after school time with your family. Did you know this property is adjacent to a conservation area? In fact, you will be able to open your back gate and walk right into it. It’s like having all of the beauty and tranquility of the country and convenience of the city.”

Is the real estate agent being truthful? Yes, if the taxes are low and the conservation area is outside the back gate. The agent cannot be faulted for lying or deception. He or she is focusing on perceived benefits of the house to leave the customer with the best possible impression.

But what impression does this leave with the customer? How does not answering a simple question impact the relationship? Bergman believes that most people would be left with the impression that the nearest school is 50 miles away.

Bergman concluded this section by pointing out that the public relations profession would better serve clients if it understood the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. He believes the skill of answering questions can be embodied in three words: pause-answer-stop. Pause and think; answer the question asked and only the question asked; then stop talking.

Bergman concluded his interactive hour by stating: “It’s important to understand the definitions of lies, deception, spin and transparency and that it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. If someone believes ‘ask me anything’ is a reasonable working definition of transparency, then answering questions in clear, concise terms is the bridge that gets us there from the truth.

“As a profession, we would better serve our clients if we helped them bridge the gap between truth and transparency, rather than telling someone asking a question that something else is important. The tactic of bridging to messages has become an outdated paradigm in an information-driven world, and we would better serve our clients if we embraced that fact.”

For more information, Eric Bergman can be reached at 416-410-3273, through his website at www.presentwithease.com, or by e-mail at fwiw@me.com.