Presumably everybody knows that we cannot always tell the truth, despite the common injunction to do so. It's interesting to note that telling the truth is not one of the Ten Commandments. The closest is "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” But that’s only one kind of lying, and probably not the worst.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides two definitions of lying—to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive, or to create a false or misleading impression. The first is clear and indefensible. The second is perhaps somewhat ambiguous. One can create a misleading impression intentionally through deception or innocently through ignorance. In any case, I doubt if anyone can claim that he or she does not tell lies, for whatever reason, at one time or another.
There are many widely acceptable times to tell a lie. We call it a “white lie” when our intention is to do good rather than evil by not telling the truth. Perhaps the best known white lie—at least until recently—is not telling people that they have a terminal illness. When my mother was dying of cancer, I think she may have known in her heart what was wrong, but she didn’t want to hear that dread disease mentioned. She was grateful when her doctor told her she had some other illness that could be treated. Today, the medical practice is to tell the truth and assure patients that there are ways of fighting the disease.
There are many levels of not telling the truth, some perfectly innocent and others problematic. For instance, there is the polite injunction sometimes told to children not to say anything to others unless you have something “nice” to say. Thus, one should refrain from telling the truth in order not to hurt someone.
Then there is the practice of “shaving” the truth, as when people are fired from a job and the official explanation is that they left to pursue other interests.
Lies get more devious when their purpose is to mislead people. For example, when a company reports losses or poor earnings because of management failures, it may try to save face by giving an explanation that is factually correct but not the real reason.
Advertising claims made for all kinds of products may be excessive. Executives may ask suppliers to disguise invoices to avoid scrutiny by management. Salesmen may promise unrealistic results for their products or services. Politicians may propose policies they know are unrealistic in order to win votes. And worst of all, wars may be started for false reasons by governments that believe their real intentions might not be supported by their constituencies.
There is a difference between shaving the truth and telling a lie. Shaving the truth is what Emily Dickinson was referring to when she wrote “Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies.” (Cleverly, the word lies can mean resides or dissembles). There is the related experience to being circuitous when one avoids telling a lie by keeping quiet when someone else has made a mistake. Thus in sports, if a rule is broken but is not seen by the referee, the player who broke the rule does not have to confess what happened. Similarly, in a trial, witnesses must answer a prosecutor’s questions truthfully, but they do not have to volunteer information that might be harmful to the defense. If someone in authority makes a statement that a subordinate knows is false, the latter may not wish to speak up and contradict the superior.
But telling an outright lie is different. I still remember, shamefully, a lie I told when I was about ten years old. There was a fat boy in my class who claimed he could run faster than me. I was skinny and quick, and he was heavy and clumsy, so I was sure I could beat him. But as we ran down the block in a race, I panicked. He was not only keeping up with me but, I feared the unthinkable, he might actually pull ahead. Suddenly I tripped and fell against an iron railing in front of a brownstone building. The sharp point of the metal punctured my upper lip and made a hole that went through to my gum. I don’t remember how I got home, but I told my mother that the fat boy had pushed me against the railing. I suspected that she reported that to my teacher and that the boy denied it, because afterwards she asked me several times if I was sure he had pushed me. I stuck to my story, although in my heart I knew it wasn’t true. I felt terribly guilty about violating one of the Ten Commandments by bringing false witness against my neighbor. I didn’t have the courage to confess what had really happened and hated myself for telling a lie.
The truth is that untruths are told for different reasons. Sometimes the truth is too painful to tell, and we tell untruths to protect ourselves. Sometimes we tell untruths to deceive others. And sometimes, when we are under pressure, we rationalize what we know is not true and persuade ourselves that it is true.
At Ruder·Finn we have had an Ethics Committee for many years in which we discuss such issues. We have always had an outside advisor present at our meetings to help us analyze the various aspects of an issue. At different times our advisors have been priests, rabbis, ministers, philosophers, sociologists, ethicists (the latter being a relatively new word that has come into the vocabulary in recent times). In one of our discussions, our scholarly adviser suggested that every person—and perhaps every organization—has a threshold as to how far one feels comfortable in “stretching” the truth, and that when faced with a dilemma we should try to arrive at a consensus as to what decision seems right for us. We learned a lot the first time we faced such a problem. It was not exactly a question of telling the truth but rather being honest with ourselves.
In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy created a committee to hunt down Communists and Communist sympathizers in America. He called witnesses from different segments of society and asked if they had ever been members of the Communist Party. If they answered no, his next question was did they know any persons whom they thought had been or might have been members of the Communist Party, and if so what were their names. If they answered the first question, they would have to answer the other questions and their testimony could be used against the individuals they mentioned.
To avoid getting friends into trouble, witnesses could plead the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution in response to the first question, which meant that they didn’t have to answer any questions that might incriminate themselves. The reality was that they would not have to answer any more questions. According to Senator McCarthy, those who took that plea were “Fifth Amendment Communists,” and he urged their “patriotic” employers to fire them.
A public relations executive who worked for a non-profit organization in Denver was called by the committee to testify; he pleaded the Fifth Amendment and was fired. He subsequently applied for a job at Ruder·Finn and we hired him. A journalist who worked for the New York Times was called to testify before the committee; he also pleaded the Fifth Amendment and was fired. He, too, applied for a job at Ruder·Finn, and we hired him as well. Then word got around—if you are called to testify and you plead the Fifth Amendment and you lose your job, apply to Ruder·Finn. Soon a third application showed up, and this time we began to worry.
Since we didn’t know what to do, we asked a professor at Columbia University who was known for his interest in ethics for advice. In talking to him we agreed that not hiring someone who exercised his Constitutional rights would be unacceptable. We also agreed that hiring a third, or fourth, or fifth such person might bring our firm to Senator McCarthy’s attention and put us all in trouble.
After a lot of discussion and hair pulling, we came up with an unexpected solution. We could help this third person get a job at another public relations firm! That struck us as a brilliant solution, and when we succeeded in doing so we felt had preserved our integrity and honesty.
The result was so enlightening and gratifying that we set up an Ethics Committee with outside advisers to help us deal with ethical dilemmas in the future. We have had that Ethics Committee doing just that ever since. Telling the truth in regard to environmental issues can be a problem, especially when one is not sure what the truth is.
Ruder· Finn was once retained by a large paper company that was battling with environmentalists about the effluent dioxin in one of its plants. Local authorities were going to pass a law specifying the limit of the chemical that would be permitted. Environmentalists had one figure in mind and the company had another.
Our assignment was to persuade journalists that the company’s proposal was the most sensible. Our client assured us that dioxin was harmless. We could even drink it, he said, and not suffer any damage. We decided to check with independent scientists to see what they thought about the issue, and to our dismay everybody we talked to agreed with the environmentalists. Dioxin was poisonous, and the stricter limit would be necessary to protect the local population. We told our client that any responsible journalist would make the same calls we had and get the same answer. Clearly the company would lose credibility by trying to sell a story that no one would buy.
Fortunately, after we reported our findings, our client negotiated a settlement that was acceptable to all parties. A law was passed, the new policy was adopted, and we were saved from having to lie to the public.
On another environmental issue I think we were on the wrong side. It had to do with what came to be called “bottle bills.” A number of states had passed laws requiring consumers to pay deposits on bottles and cans of consumer products they purchased with the understanding that they could recover the money when they returned the empty bottles and cans. The purpose was to protect the environment and reduce waste by recycling metal and glass containers rather than throwing them into the garbage and contributing to the growing solid waste disposal problem.
Our client consisted of a group of associations representing manufacturers of containers for foods and soft drinks. Knowledgeable and responsible executives of the companies represented by the associations believed that “bottle bills” would be a disaster. Retailers would not have the facilities to receive the returned containers, vermin would be attracted, homeowners would have a mess in their kitchens.
Moreover, they were convinced that recycling made no sense economically. The associations also had a solution for the problem of litter—education instead of recycling. The landscape might be cleaner through recycling, but it would also be cleaner if we would teach people the value of being neat and responsible. We did our best to convey our message in states that were considering the new legislation, but we kept losing the battle.
Now, years later, the world has changed. People pay deposits on bottles and cans willingly, returns are made regularly to get the deposits back. There’s no mess in the supermarkets. Cans and bottles are recycled, thereby reducing the waste of metal and glass. The cost of recycling does not seem to be a problem. So we were wrong on all counts. We didn’t tell the truth, because we didn’t know what the truth was.
There is a curious epilogue to the story. It is a fact that recycling works, but it’s also a fact that litter persists, although it was one of the problems that environmentalists thought would be solved.
Recently my family discovered that on Saturday nights teenagers park their cars around midnight in front of our house and socialize. The next morning our bushes are filled with empty bottles and cans! Recycling may well be understood by parents, but apparently it hasn’t made an impression on some kids. My hunch is that the landscape around the country has not improved much, if at all.
So perhaps both sides were wrong. We were wrong in thinking recycling wouldn’t work. The glass and metals in bottles and cans are being reused rather than thrown away. Environmentalists were wrong in thinking litter would be eliminated. The landscape is still a mess.
One of the complaints about public relations people made by critics—indeed their major complaint—is that we are superficial in our thinking and too often we don’t tell the truth. I think we should heed both criticisms and make a determined effort to improve our performance. Too often we don’t do enough research to have reliable information about the message we are communicating, and in controversial issues we tend to believe what our clients tell us without listening to contrary views.
If we’re not careful we could make statements on their behalf that are not true. This is not only a public relations problem. It’s a characteristic of human nature. When one listens to two sides of any issue being argued by experts, as happens almost every night on the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, it’s hard not to see validity on both sides, even if they strongly disagree with each other. That remarkable feature of the program creates as much confusion, at least for me, as enlightenment. One can almost always ask: How can such knowledgeable, well-meaning people have such diametrically opposite views on subjects about which they are experts? And what should we think about those controversial issues, when we know far less than any of the experts? But as citizens it is better to be informed than uninformed, and whether I do or don’t change my mind, I always come away from such debates feeling more respect for a point of view I previously thought was wrong. I think that makes for a more thoughtful electorate.
Ultimately, it is wise for us to recognize how little we know about controversial subjects even when we have a strong opinion about them. Sometimes a little knowledge is better than none, but more often too little knowledge can lead to a mistaken opinion about a critical issue. We should therefore do our best to be well informed about whatever point of view we are representing. We should be scrupulous about not telling others what, to our knowledge, we don’t think is correct. And we should never be a spokesperson or provide communications resources for the policies or positions of a company, a cause or a country with which we personally disagree.