Public relations practitioners are faced with dilemmas on a daily basis. Choices must be made to determine what medium will be most effective to disseminate a message, or what strategy of crisis management to initiate after an incident. Decisions go beyond strictly business and stray into the areas of ethics and moral decisions. Good public relations practitioners strive to conduct their business in the most effective manner, while great public relations practitioners are effective without compromising their organizations or personal ethics.
Truth and honesty are often used interchangeably, but they must remain separate, especially for the practitioner. Truth is defined as “the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality.” Its root comes from the old English word for fidelity. Merriam-Webster defines honesty as “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct.”
Upon inspection of the proper definitions, it appears that truth relates to the information itself, while honesty refers to manner or actions.
So how does this distinction relate to public relations practitioners? Can someone be truthful without being honest, or vice versa?
There is no doubt that the two go hand in hand, but they may not be mutually exclusive. You could have truthful information and messages to convey to your audience on behalf of an organization, but the way you choose to convey these truths or facts determines your honesty. Truth can be used to manipulate or sway audiences without honest intentions.
In another situation, a public relations practitioner may have knowledge of the truth, such as unfavorable environmental reports or stock earnings, but chose not to share the whole truth with the organization’s publics. These situations illuminate the fine line of balancing the two different principles of truth and honesty.
PRSA addresses honesty in its Code of Ethics under the professional values: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”
PRSA goes beyond calling for truth by demanding honesty specifically in relation to the interest of the client and public. The standard set should be what every public relations practitioner, or other industry professional, should strive for. It is not enough to follow the truth because all information and messages can be manipulated. More value is set by the actions and characters of professionals. From honesty comes trust, and that’s when a practitioner really becomes successful in the industry.
Have you been placed in a situation when you’ve had to chose between truth and honesty? How did you handle it?
Katie Sanders is a junior majoring in public relations at the University of Alabama and is a member of the school’s PRSSA Chapter. She is currently a contributing editor for Platform Magazine, an online publication for public relations practitioners. Her future career interests are in the area of healthcare management and nonprofit work.