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.

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin

For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

Lying by Sisela Bok

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.”  To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”

In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.  

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.  

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.  

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.  

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.    

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.  

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

P-A-S: The Most Important Step

After more than 20 years of examining the concept, and after teaching it successfully for that period, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question and stop talking. 

pause-answer-stop

First of all, it offers protection. If you’ve ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer that question and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to “shut up,” the net result is exactly the same.) 

Does your legal counsel tell you to P-A-S because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility. 

Does the lawyer want you to P-A-S so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that’s a bit tougher to answer, the lawyer tells you to P-A-S so you can protect the organization. 

If this advice offers protection in a court of law, why wouldn’t it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print reporter, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team or a board of directors? 

It can. And it does. 

But beyond that, P-A-S enables someone to communicate more effectively. Quite simply, by asking more questions the person receiving the information can create better understanding. 

Some time ago, my wife and I decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor. 

One evening, I went to Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question. 

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question. 

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I bet I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son, who was 18 years old at the time, remarked as we were walking out of the store: “Dad, that was amazing. I can’t believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions." 

Actually, I didn’t ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions — which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not P-A-S. 

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn’t achieve his organization’s objectives. However, that’s short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, my local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I’m even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. 

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you’ll deliver? Want to build rapport with community groups? Teach yourself the same simple tactic: 

Pause. Answer the question. Stop talking.

In Praise of Rather's Rules

If you’ve read many of my posts, chances are you know that I’m not a big fan of staying on message.  Personally, I believe staying on message can be used as one of a number of defensive strategies, but it has become an overused and outdated paradigm in an information-driven world.

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I make the assumption that most media relations practitioners have, as one of their ideal end states, a desire to build some form of relationship with reporters.  Without communication, you cannot build a relationship with anyone.  And, if you don’t answer someone’s questions in clear, concise terms — whether the person asking is a spouse, partner, significant other, parent, child, neighbour, boss, co-worker, colleague or reporter — chances are you are transmitting, not communicating.  

But, having said all that, there are specific situations in which a spokesperson may reasonably choose not to answer a question.  To understand when this is acceptable, we turn to what are known as “Rather’s Rules.”  These guidelines for answering questions have been attributed to television reporter Dan Rather.  I first encountered them during a discussion on the old Marketing & PR Forum on CompuServe in the mid-1990s.

Basically, Rather’s Rules state that there are three acceptable answers to every question that someone can be asked.  They are:

  • Yes, I have the answer, and here it is.
  • No, I don’t have the answer, but I’ll get it for you.
  • Yes, I do have the answer, but I cannot discuss it at this time.

It’s easy to see that waffling, sidestepping, obfuscating and evading are not anywhere to be found on this list, nor is the overly simplistic advice of “stay on message.”  If your organization is interested in pursuing excellence in its communication activities — and is striving to create two-way symmetrical communication wherever and whenever possible — you should have no problem accepting the parameters outlined by Rather’s Rules.  

There are a number of specific situations in which a spokesperson would deliberately choose the third option, to not answer questions, even though he or she knows the answer.  These include situations in which the question directly relates to:

  • A case currently before the courts.
  • Union negotiations that are under way, in which a news blackout has been imposed.
  • An emergency, in which next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
  • Securities legislation, which would be breached if the question was answered.
  • Confidentiality for employees, customers, members or others.
  • Another aspect of privacy of information legislation.
  • Sensitive competitive information.
  • Issues of national security.

It’s clear from this list that choosing to not communicate by not answering someone’s questions is relatively straightforward.  If a spokesperson at an accident or disaster is asked about who was injured or killed, it’s acceptable for that person to say “I cannot answer any questions about casualties until all next-of-kin have been notified.”

The line is not so clear when it comes to situations in which a spokesperson would choose to deliberately avoid questions.  That will be the topic of my next post. 

The Illogical Logic of Not Answering Questions

Reporter Eve Lazarus described how she had sat through a media training session arranged for a young jewelry designer who had won an award for designing a right-hand diamond engagement ring.  The designer’s employer believed the award would be a good way to generate free publicity.  But before unleashing the young designer on unsuspecting reporters, media training was arranged.

In the article, Lazarus listened to a consultant provide the following advice during the media training session:  "Get your message out, don’t let a reporter interrupt you, try not to speak too quickly and try not to get off track with what you are there to talk about.

media training quote from Eric Bergman

“They are going to ask you a question, you are going to answer with your key message, they are going to ask you another question, and you are going to have a second or third key message.”

Hmmmmm.  Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t understand this logic.

The company has good news to share.  They are cranking up the media relations machine to get reporters interested in their story.  They’re hoping the editors will respond by sending out a reporter, which will then result in “free” publicity for the firm.

When the reporter begins asking questions (which is, after all, what reporters do for a living), the spokesperson is going to ignore their questions and keep driving home key messages.

It sounds like an interesting way to develop relationships with reporters.  You get us interested so we’ll ask questions.  When we ask them, you rudely ignore them and keep parroting key messages that would look better in an advertisement than a feature article.  I wonder what will happen the next time the organization (or its agency) sends out a news release.  If you were the editor, what would you do?  I’d delete it in less time than it takes the average consultant to say “key message.”

Must Be A Moral Gain

I will be the first to admit that there are times when you might want to ignore the question and reply with a message.  However, I believe that these times should be extremely limited and there should be a moral gain (which often comes primarily as prevention of a moral loss) for the organization or the individual.

For example, suppose you are the plant manager for a petroleum refinery and you’re asked a straight forward question by a reporter:  "Do you pollute?“  Of course you pollute.  After all, you’re running a refinery.  If you don’t pollute, the products you manufacture certainly do.  

A media training quote from Eric Bergman

However, I can easily make the case that there is a moral gain to be had by both the individual (the ability to make mortgage payments by NOT performing a career limiting move) and the organization (no possible erosion to community trust or the stock price) by sticking to the message: "Our facility has always adhered to all environmental rules and regulations in our operations.”

But what moral gain can there be when you’re approaching the media with a positive story and you ignore their questions?  At best, this approach is confusing; there is no connection between sender and receiver in what is fundamentally a communication process.

At worst, it is downright rude.  And it certainly isn’t a solid foundation on which long-term relationships with reporters can be constructed.

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