I’ve spent 40 years in organizational communications, mostly in the corporate world. I’ve been on the firing line more times than I want to remember with product crises, environmental crises, public controversies involving the company, and more. For about a year, I worked for an urban school district forced into massive change during a full-blown financial crisis and became the most familiar face on local television during that time.
Once, perhaps more than once, I was asked a question by an acquaintance that caught me up short.
“Have you ever lied for your company?”
An Honest Answer
I thought a moment, looked at the person asking the question, and answered: “No. Not once.”
He was surprised. That’s what public relations people are supposed to do, right—lie on a regular basis? Or “mis-speak,” to use the more common word today.
I understand the question. I have seen PR people lie. I’ve also seen just about every other kind of professional and worker lie as well. However, with PR, it’s expected. PR carries a bias for the organization, or bias for the client.
I will say this: the questioner actually asked the wrong question. He should have asked asked: “Have you ever been asked, or told, to lie for your company?”
He would have gotten a very different answer. Actually, he would have received four different answers.
First, being directly (and knowingly) asked to tell a lie is exceedingly rare. It might have been more common in the days before tape recorders, listening devices, and email, but no one says, “I need you to lie to the newspaper about this one.” It can happen, but it’s not at all common.
From there, things quickly get more interesting, more “gray.”
Sinning by Omission
Second, it is possible to speak the truth and lie at the same time, by omitting a key fact, number, situation, or perspective. Most of what passes for “spin” falls into this category, where employees emphasize one perspective while hoping no one asks questions. This isn’t limited to business and the private sector, by the way; many others practice spin: politicians, social and environmental activists, lobbyists, attorneys arguing court cases, and newspaper editorial writers.
The third form of lying is how you say something. You use enough high-sounding words to make a statement seem substantive while really saying very little. You emphasize a particular word or phrase, directing attention away from the problem: “We would never consider doing something that dastardly” (meaning, “No, but we might have done something slightly less dastardly”). Or you give a non-apology, the most common form of lying in America today: “If I offended anyone with my statement, I’m sorry.” That little word “if” changes the entire meaning.
Finally, there’s the old standby: “No comment.” In some cases, organizations truly can’t comment for valid legal reasons—like when an executive gets fired after losing an internal political battle, or a merger or acquisition is pending and what you say will be scrutinized to death by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Publicly-traded companies have to be particularly careful.
But much of the time, “no comment” means you don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing and the accusation is actually correct, or a response might get you sued, or answering the question will only drag you into a deeper quagmire.
So, have I successfully avoided lying in all of these contexts? The answer is yes.
In most cases, candid discussion will set things right. People often don’t realize that omitting something, or using a particular phrasing, will be misleading or untruthful, and they work to make it right.
This philosophy has made for some difficult work situations for me. If you regularly raise objections to a planned statement or course of action for valid reasons, you will not be seen as a team player. There can be—and often is—a cost to your career, your salary, your bonus and your position.
However, if you take your faith seriously, and if your faith accompanies you into the office, cubicle or shop floor, that’s what you do.
Photograph by Linnaea Mallette via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.