“Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up There and Lie”

A post on Gawker left me speechless for a few minutes today. If this is an accurate representation of what was actually said at a media training session, it violates everything I know about the practice of communications:

“I’m a high-level advertising and marketing executive who’s hired – and used- some of the top PR firms in the nation.

As part of their ‘media training’ they commonly tell you lying is fine.

From a direct quote within an Edelman (the nation’s largest independent PR firm) session, training our entire senior management team:

‘Sometimes, you just have to stand up there and lie. Make the audience or the reporter believe that everything is OK. How many times have you heard a CEO stand up and say, ‘No, I’m not leaving the company’ and then – days later – he’s gone. Reporters understand that you ‘had’ to do it and they won’t hold it against you in your next job when you deal with them again.'”

Utter bullshit IMHO.

If other PR practitioners have a different point of view, let’s hear it, but from my perspective we’re only as good as our personal reputation for candor and truthfulness. Lose those and you may as well look for a shepherding gig.

And, in truth, it’s a pretty underwhelming PR person who thinks the only way to answer a question is with a lie. There are an infinite number of ways to answer a question that go back to what is at the core of most media training: blocking and bridging?

To use the example cited herein:

“Jon, what do you have to say about the rumors we’re hearing about the CEO’s imminent departure?”
“What I always say, Michael: ‘We don’t comment on rumors and speculation; when there’s something to announce, regardless of the topic, we’ll get the word out.'”
“So, are you denying that your CEO plans to leave?”
“I’m saying that we don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”
“Is it possible that he’s contemplating leaving?”
“Hypothetical questions are just like rumors and speculation; I’m not going to get into a game of what-if.”

And on and on…

Now, it is possible to have an honest disagreement about whether blocking and bridging is a valid technique; I absolutely think it is but reporters, I suspect, would like all PR people to be compelled to answer in ways that make their job easier:

“Jon, what do you have to say about the rumors we’re hearing about the CEO’s imminent departure?”
“Those rumor have a basis in fact, Michael; our CEO is currently interviewing for a new position.”
“What are the details of this situation?”
“Our CEO is being offered a substantial financial incentive to go to work for Amalgamated Schmeer and is interested in the opportunity because of the size of the financial incentive and also because he feels somewhat burnt out by his current job.”
“Is anything else I should know about?”
“Why yes, Michael. You probably would be interested in knowing that two other senior managers are currently contemplating leaving, that the board has offered the CEO additional financial incentives to stay and that the legal department is currently conducting a routine internal audit of the CEO’s expense account. Also, last week we experienced a non-reportable spill of 75 gallons of propylene in our Tulsa facility that in all likelihood entered the watershed.”

That approach would certainly make reporters’ jobs a lot easier but it would be unfaithful to our other obligations as advocates for our clients or companies. I make a big distinction between being an advocate and being a public information officer. Advocates have a point of view, we promote an agenda, we work toward a specific outcome. What makes our jobs hard – and interesting – is advocating while also upholding our obligation to be truthful and honest (which again, I don’t equate with “making a reporter happy”).

Again, if others have a different point of view on the validity of blocking and bridging, belly up to the bar and let’s hear ’em.

Here’s a challenge to you all: come up with a question where the only possible choices are admitting to an inconvenient truth or lying and post it here. I bet all comers that such a question doesn’t exist. Beat me at my game and I’ll award the winner a genuine “think BLUE” wristband suitable for all Democratically inclined wrists.

– Austin

15 thoughts on ““Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up There and Lie”

  1. All right, this one caught my attention. Reporters are as bad as Wall Street shorts. There are rules of business they just don’t get. Sometimes we can’t—or won’t—talk about something because it’s regulated, litigious, stupid, or a no-win situation because the reporter wouldn’t understand what was happening if it was spelled out in crayon. No company should risk sinking the stock, blowing a business deal, or pissing off the board by engaging with someone with zero business experience, who can’t help but ask stupid questions. Block and bridge away.

  2. Hornseth says:

    Agreed with Austin’s major points here.

    I think people get hung up on bridging as a tactic because it makes minds leap immediately to images of the crusading journalist vs. the embattled spokesperson. That’s where all the intrigue lives, of course — the fun stuff about which PR people point to themselves and talk shop.

    As with most things, it’s a lot less interesting than that in day-to-day practice. For most PR people (unless you deal a lot with crises), only a small percentage of interview situations really look like that. Comparatively few exchanges involve the interviewee’s back to the wall. For every one of those situations I’ve worked with, I’ve probably managed 10 other situations that were routine, collaborative and (gasp) even friendly.

    The real, unsung benefit of bridging is in these less intriguing situations — the bulk of the exchanges that take up big chunks of PR budgets. In these, it has nothing to do with evading tough questions. It’s about taking enough control of an exchange such that what you came to say has a chance of coming out of your mouth — especially in what is for most people the foreign and unnerving experience of being interviewed on record, even by a friendly trade pub.

    Bridging, taught in that light, can help level the playing field and lead to a better conversation. Sure — like anything it can be abused. But in general it’s a good, effective thing.

  3. jloveland says:

    Count me as anti-lying. Even those without consciences should realize that it’s too easy to get caught in a free society.

    But I also think bridging is overused and poorly done. Since we only had about 3 readers when these were posted (we’re now in double digits), I’ll flag a couple related posts…https://thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com/2007/04/16/on-message-off-humanity/ and https://thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com/2007/02/20/the-special-relationship/

  4. Austin, you don’t teach your clients to lie?
    They should get their money back.

    OK, seriously, I have to admit I’ve come pretty close to advising clients to lie, if you want to be absolutist about it.

    In mergers, when I’ve worked with two hospitals that are working on a consolidation for months before any announcement is made, a contingency statement that we always had in place, for when someone asked “Are St. Elsewhere and BudgetCare Hospitals talking about merging?” was: “We’re always exploring options on providing better care more effectively.” The honest answer would have been, “Yes.” The contingency statement kept the hospitals from having to be straightforward about it. The rationale, of course, was to not rile things up when the deal isn’t done yet. If two hospitals are going to merge, clearly there will be people losing jobs, and sometimes the best, most marketable people are the ones who go find other jobs first in uncertain times. So you don’t give a fully honest answer.

    When things got closer to an announcement of the merger, the contingency statement was “No final decisions have been made” when asked, “Are St. Elsewhere and BudgetCare going to merge?” Technically true, that no final decisions had been made, and the boards hadn’t given their final approval, but lots of decisions had been made and things were pretty darn close.

    I always tell my clients that they can’t lie — cuz it’s wrong and it doesn’t work in the long run (what an idealistic fruitfly I am to say that), but you don’t have to tell people everything that’s going on. That ground is a little squishy.

    There are times when the best answer, despite what we say in media training, is simply not returning the call, not answering the question, not being available. One night when Obama was romping through primary wins, Hillary cancelled a lot of her scheduled interviews — probably smart to just stay the hell out of the way for a few hours. Once, in a complicated legal case, where my client had done something wrong but was being accused of doing a different thing wrong, I and the attorneys advised just not answering the phone.

    BTW, for the training session on lying, we should charge more.

  5. Sarah says:

    There’s one response that leaves reporters high and dry and it neither constitutes lying nor bridging, a tired tactic which no one buys anyway.

    “I have no information to provide.” (Repeat as often as necessary)

    That’s all.

    Try it sometime. Stops them dead in their tracks.

    If the reporter is accurate, he/she cannot say the spokesman refused comment. It’s not true.

  6. Dennis Lang says:

    Enjoying the insider dialogue about P/R, communications and reporting. Expressing the truth–how much, how little, or completely concealing–can be intricately nuanced and potentially conflictual can’t it? For instance if Enron had revealed the truth it would have doomed any chance for a turn-around and saving livlihoods through continued operations, but in concealing the truth all those livihoods were lost. So, “I have no information to provide” does the trick?

  7. Sarah says:

    Trust me – plaintiffs’ attorneys were dying for an Enron spokesperson to slip up and speak the truth.

    ‘I have no information to provide’ buys time and it doesn’t increase liability.

  8. Dennis Lang says:

    Thanks for your reply, Sarah. I’m a total idiot on this subject (and can’t spell “livelihood”-see above) but to what degree does this approach pose a possible moral dilema for the p/r person? I’m imagining those administration press secretaries who may know a lot more they can reveal in the interest of protecting whatever secret agendas require protection. Or Colin Powell stuck in the deception of WMD’s in 2003. “Lying”, “bridging”, “blocking”, so it’s not just a p/r semantical game, a behavior rationalization–terminolgy all referring to basically the same thing?

  9. Dennis Lang says:

    You folks have raised an interesting discussion on ethics in public relations. Did anyone catch the “60 Minutes” segment on Bayer’s drug to control bleeding: Trasylol. Evidently Bayer witheld results of the study it commissioned that revealed deadly side-effects. They claimed the data wasn’t ready for review. (Advised by their ulta-highbuck p/r firm?) Is this an example of “blocking” or “no more information to provide”? It’s estimated 22,000 lives were lost through the use of this drug. Bayer’s profits soared. Is the p/r firm merely advocating the best interests of its client?

  10. jmaustin says:

    Dennis has raised some really important and nuanced questions for PR folks: how far are we willing to go as advocates? How do we know when we’re crossing the line?

    I didn’t see the 60 Minutes piece so I can’t comment specifically on it, but I have been in similar situations where my experts say something is safe and others – with some standing to do so – assert otherwise.

    As simple-minded as it may sound, it comes down to trust. My ability and willingness to be an advocate depends on my trust that the people I’m working with are giving me the full picture and their best assessment of situations that are sometimes highly technical and obscure.

    Without that I think you’re on shaky ground, especially in matters of health and safety.

    Now, just to be a contrarian, who’s to say that 60 Minutes’ take on this story, which I’m sure was presented with all the power and impact that show can muster, is the “true” version of what happened? Do we have the tools to judge the veracity of their experts’ conclusions? And, that the causality implied in Dennis’ comment – that Bayer withheld the study for financial reasons – is accurate?

    I have a clip I show in media training sessions of a CNN segment about the results of Consumer Reports study of car seat safety. The results were awful. Some car seats were deemed so unsafe that the Consumer Reports spokesperson was outraged at the manufacturers’ willingness to endanger the lives of children.

    The only person willing to go on camera in the face of this assault was Robert Matteucci of Evenflo who insisted their products was safe, that they hadn’t been given access to the test data, etc. He got slaughtered from a viewer’s perspective.

    But, it turns out, Consumer Reports was wrong. They subcontracted out the testing and didn’t monitor it closely enough to realize that the vendor performed the test at more than twice the specified speed – about 80 miles an hour versus 35 is my recollection.

    I play the clip and then have a discussion before telling them the outcome. What should Evenflo (and others) have done in the face of these tests; should they have apologized, withdrawn their products from the markets? Should Matteucci have gone on camera and what should he have said?

    Most people think that Matteucci made a mistake going on the show and asserting their innocence. He should have apologized and announced a recall and withdrawl of their products.

    Then, after telling them the outcome, I ask the questions again. What is always surprising to me is that there some who believe that the outcome is irrelevant; the company should have apologized anyway and promised to fix the problem. In their worldview, apparently, being accused of something is the same as actually doing it.

    Organizations (and people) do bad things all the time and lie about them. My experience, though, is that most of the bad things happen because of mistakes, accidents or because generally well-intentioned people make a judgment call that turns out wrong – a great big gray area that can be endlessly debated.

    I tend to think that the instances of true evil are relatively rare. In those cases, we should all run like hell, screaming at the top of our lungs.

    – Austin

  11. Dennis Lang says:

    Mr. Austin–Thank you for your thoughtful discussion on what is a quite provocative and far-reaching subject. For those interested, the transcript of the Trasylol broadcast last night is posted on the “60 Minutes” website. Bayer continued to support the “risk benefit” of the drug despite the finding of its Harvard commisioned study of 70,000 patients. I believe Bayer claimed that the research “wasn’t ready for review.” The Harvard director of the study exclaimed bafflement at their reaction. Maybe there were flaws in the research justifying Bayer’s position–then again if Bayer wanted to find cause to invalidate it, I’m confident they could. “60 Minutes” didn’t directly attribute Bayer’s astronomical profits to the drug, only that corporate profits were dramatic and Trasylol remained a significant profit center. Again, thanks to TSRC for exploring this subject. We’ve become so media bombarded, the whole notion of truth is sadly getting foggier. Your discussion always enlightening.

  12. jloveland says:

    Jon makes a good point that it’s much easier to know the truth from the inside than the outside. Unfortunately, though, in large organizations learning the truth is challenging, even from the inside. Some PR people are out there lying without knowing they are lying, because they are too far down the food chain to know the truth.

    But if I learn the truth and the learn my employer or client has been lying to the public, I’m outta there. Reasons: a) ethics and your obligation to your fellow man; b) legal liability and c) I only have one reputation and I’m not sacrificing it for liars.

  13. jmaustin says:

    Maybe the last comment on this topic: almost anything can be made worse by lying about it. People understand that mistakes happen and machines break; they have – in this culture in particular – an amazing capacity for forgiveness – witness the steady parade of fallen celebrities to the couches of Oprah and Jay and relatively quick trip through purgatory for Don Imus. Lying to cover up a mistake, though, is pretty much a killer.

    My litmus test for whether this continues to hold true or our standards are changing is James Frey, the author of the “Oops-I-made-it-up-autobiography” of “A Million Little Pieces”. He has a book coming out in May – “Bright Shiny Morning” – that should test our capacity to forgive a liar, particularly one who made the big boo-boo of lying to Oprah – the most powerful woman in the world – and making her look foolish. That’s like the old margarine commercial, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

    Early indicator is that Mr. Frey may still be an apostate: BSM is sitting in 41,089th place on the Amazon best-seller list. Odds that this one will be an Oprah Bookclub recommedation: about a zillion to one.

    – Austin

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