Shock, horror – dishonesty is necessary

I can’t get too excited about the headline selected by PR Week to report the ethics debate it held involving Max Clifford amongst others.  The motion was apparently “does PR have a duty to tell the truth” which was defeated 53% to 47% (out of 262 votes).

Ethics is a complex topic and neither truth nor honesty are absolutes.  I cannot argue with the view from Clifford that lying is sometimes necessary to achieve the greatest good.  But surely it depends what you are lying about and who determines what the greatest good might be.

I’ve heard that Clifford feels lying to the media about whether a footballer is gay is okay – but in that case, surely the greatest good is that the media stop viewing “outing” as a big deal and that football stops being prejudiced against homosexuality in the game.

That’s entirely different to expecting military PR to be honest  and transparent about the exact location and duties of Prince Harry when he is deployed in Iraq.  That doesn’t necessariily involve lying, but is different to having a duty to tell the truth.

If we are going to have the necessary debate about ethics in public relations – and public communications in general – then it deserves better than a straw poll on the front page of PR Week.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

5 thoughts on “Shock, horror – dishonesty is necessary”

  1. I haven’t read PR Week yet, but it is disturbing that the vote was so close. How can PR achieve credibility – and abide by the CIPR code of conduct – if being honest does not rate highly?

  2. PR Week tells of Max Clifford’s fib he told Sainsburys that Tesco were going to set up a fund for the Farepack unfortunates that resulted in both Sainsbury and Tesco helping the people. This underhand tactic hit the spot in the end, but it’s hardly ethical.

  3. I was disappointed too. Surely the foundation of long-term relationship building is honesty and trust? If a PRO lies once, how will anyone know when they’re telling the truth?

  4. Personally, I believe you do need to build trust and honesty is an important part of that. However, that cannot mean that you always “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – as there are circumstances when it is not possible or advisable. However, you can be honest and straightforward with those you are communicating with about what you can and cannot say. That way, you retain your integrity.

    Max Clifford’s willingness to tell lies such as Jill mentions, I feel are absolutely wrong. Will either Sainsbury or Tesco believe him next time regardless of the positive outcome here for those who needed help?

    Some of my students yesterday had been at this debate (and voted against Clifford). They said the issue was really the fact that the question was framed as “does PR have a duty to tell the truth”, which some people felt wasn’t supported 100%. It might have been more telling to have posed the question to be “does PR have a duty to lie on behalf of clients” – there may be times when your duty isn’t to tell the truth, but is that the same as having a duty to lie?

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