Truth and Consequences

Public Relations Is Simple: Tell The Truth And Follow The Golden Rule.

By Thomas J. Roach

Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night follows the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” This isn’t just good advice, it is a theory of identity and worth. In other words, people who are honest with themselves cannot lie to others, and by implication, those who lie to others are also dishonest with themselves.

This gets at the real problem with dishonesty. It isn’t about the lie; it is about what the lie says about the liar. Lies can be big, little or white, and they can be dressed in shades of gray, but the speaker either is or is not lying. Honesty is an either/or proposition.

When NBC anchor Brian Williams got caught in a lie about a helicopter incident in Iraq, he needed to confess and face the humiliation and professional consequences. Coming clean gives the apologist an opportunity to say, “I’m not like that anymore.”

If the apologist instead tries to mitigate the offense by telling another lie or by stretching the facts, then the message is “I lied then. I’m lying now. I am dishonest.” The weasel tactic provides more evidence of chicanery and prolongs the discourse further imbedding the negative impression in the minds of those following the story.

In the Public Eye

The situation is particularly complicated for someone in the public eye. A politician, a television personality, a company spokesperson and even anyone managing a small group of employees holds a position ostensibly as a result of a good reputation. If a news story or office gossip expose a lie, then it might be tempting to deny guilt or to deliberately confuse the issue by offering an apology that distorts the facts.

While admitting guilt and further damaging one’s reputation in order to defend one’s reputation may seem paradoxical, it is the only effective response. What most people don’t get is that there are bad problems and worse problems. The difference between “I lied” and “I am lying” is huge. The former is possibly forgivable; the latter is not.

The dismantling of Williams’ reputation was painful to watch, but it is instructive. News shows send their news anchors into seemingly perilous situations to build credibility and boost ratings. While Williams was in a helicopter that was part of a military operation that came under fire in Iraq, his helicopter was never in danger.

In the video clips now being aired on television and made available on the Internet, you can watch the story getting exaggerated over the next 10 years. It is based on a real event, but as time passed the momentum of a shamelessly self-promoting news industry propelled it to heroic proportions.

In Williams’ first account in 2003 he hypes the danger, but he seems to stick to the facts. On the Late Show in February 2015 he goes all in, giving details of the hard landing. Ironically, David Letterman’s response is “No kidding.”


A few days later in his on-air apology, Williams takes the weasel approach. He refers to the “harrowing” experience and claims that his only reason for telling the story was to thank and honor veterans. 

He didn’t say he knew he was misrepresenting the facts; rather he said he “bungled” the story. Of course anyone watching the clips knows that Williams didn’t bungle the story. He told it artfully, developed it slowly, and reaffirmed it boldly. What he bungled was the apology.

People who can’t remember if their helicopter was shot down or not and who bungle stories don’t get paid the big bucks, and they especially don’t get jobs as journalists. Perhaps more than anything else, the word “bungled” revealed Williams’ willingness to mislead his listeners in order to save face.

Public relations is really very simple. Tell the truth and follow the golden rule. Anyone who tries anything else will need to hire a staff of PR professionals – preferably not the ones who helped Williams’ draft his apology.

Related posts