A question of truth

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In a court of law perhaps, but “truth” is often not so black and white in the public utterances of leaders.

Take Hillary Clinton, who some believe has still not adequately responded to questions around her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. When asked on Fox News if she was being truthful when claiming not to have sent classified emails over her personal account, she used the FBI Director’s public statement on the investigation as corroboration, but effectively mis-quoted what he said. Inevitably, she has been heavily criticised for giving an evasive and misleading response.

Business leaders face similar, if slightly less sensitive, issues all the time. And while they naturally like to give the impression of being honest at all times, they can’t be ENTIRELY honest, can they? Keeping a potentially damaging piece of information back from investors and the media isn’t like deceiving your husband or wife, is it? Holding back the truth is easily criticised, but there are sometimes strong ethical, as well as commercial, arguments for doing so.

This is not always the case, of course, and some instances of evasive or incomplete responses hide myriad corporate misdeeds. A professor of accounting at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business analysed the transcripts of thousands of corporate earnings calls, comparing the ones made by CEOs who were later found to be liars, such as convicted fraudsters and finding key signs of deception such as failure to directly answer a question; or use of words such as “my team” and “we” more than “I”. Research in this area has contributed to the development of audio analysis tools and lie detection techniques for investors to analyse what is being said by executives, in order to identify signs of deception.

Techniques like this are making it harder than ever for business people to get away with evading the truth or holding back bits of it. Furthermore, the ease of availability of information on the internet makes it more likely than ever that a lie, or even just an “embroidery” of the truth, will eventually catch up with its source. In essence, this is a good thing.

But as PR professionals it is a vital part of our job to craft the messages that companies and their senior management utter in public, and keeping some things confidential is an important part of this. Alistair Campbell’s advice for politicians in his book “Winners and How They Succeed” was that they “must never lie” but “not always tell the whole truth”. I don’t necessarily see this as immoral.

Of course we should be truthful and act in a moral way in our professional lives as much as our personal lives, but telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not always possible, advisable or even ethical. There is a big difference between holding something back for valid strategic or commercial reasons and covering up an act of malpractice in a deliberately unethical manner.

Written by Ian Morris, Director

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