Are PR Reps All Liars?

“To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation[s] executive.”

That’s the money quote from Reuters journalist Jack Shafer’s piece “Why We Vote for Liars”—and it’s been making its way around the worlds of PR and journalism this week. A little incendiary, no?

Our first instinct is to defend the PR business against Shafer’s generalizations, though his quote does play back into one of this week’s most contentious questions: Whether the growth of the PR biz—and the corresponding decline of objective journalism—truly “threatens democracy”. If everyone who speaks to the public is a publicist or a politician, then who will check their facts and call them out on their lies? The mere promise of honesty is not very reassuring.

Shafer points to the growing importance of fact-checkers in a polarized political media landscape, writing that “If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her.”

Why do they lie? Because the political market places very little value on honesty, no matter how much we citizens express our desire for a more noble brand of politics. This is nothing new.

And, of course, we deal with many degrees of untruth in politics, from the tiny insignificant lie to the blatant misrepresentation to the bizarre and unnecessary fib told to create a false sense of camaraderie. There are even lies about lies—Al Gore, for example, never actually claimed to have “invented the Internet”, but everyone’s familiar with the anecdote anyway.

OK, point taken about politics, Mr. Shafer. But why does that sentence treat the general dishonesty of PR execs as a given?

If we didn’t know better, we’d say the PR business has a PR problem. Shafer seems to imply that PR reps, who speak on behalf of another person or business, are allowed and even expected to lie because they’re not actually lying about themselves—and that’s the one faux pas that voters can’t forgive. While creating a “durable, convincing” lie often nurtures a sense of leadership, personal authenticity holds greater value than almost any other factor, even when voters realize that it’s completely fake. So why are politicians “expected” to tell the truth when representatives are not? Does anyone really believe that Mitt Romney values economic regulation or that Barack Obama uses the word “folks” in casual conversation?

PR pros: How can we respond to Shafer’s piece? Does the assumed dishonesty that he describes in that single damning sentence threaten the value of the profession? (We’d say yes.)

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.