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The Black, White & Gray Areas of Lying & Deception In PR

Published on September 19, 2017, at 5:27 p.m.
by Mallory McDonald.

Lying and deception seem like black and white subjects — clearly defined as right or wrong. However, in a field like public relations that relies greatly on public image and client satisfaction, lying and deception can become a gray area.

For the most part, lying to and deceiving your client or publics are unethical and avoidable. But what is considered a lie? What is considered deceptive behavior? These words symbolize different actions to different people. Questionable behavior for one person could be the key to a successful PR campaign for another.

Clearly defining those black and white lines is a challenge that all public relations professionals will face. More often than not, PR practitioners will need to make close-call decisions that could have ethical implications.

Instant Vantage /

Black areas
Certain behavior in regard to lying and deception is never accepted in PR and will result in long-term consequences. Lying to a client or the public with the intent of misleading or covering up information is dishonest and should always be avoided.

One noteworthy example of an ethical response is the Johnson & Johnson  cyanide-laced capsules   crisis in 1982. Seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol, and the culprit was never found. The company was upfront with the public and     immediately removed 31 million bottles of Tylenol, which cost the company $100 million.

Would it have been easier and less costly to hide the information? Maybe. That thought may have been brought up, but ultimately, making the ethical decision led to the recovery of the Tylenol brand

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White areas 
Other times, lying and deceiving for a period of time may be necessary to successfully create a PR campaign. The majority of the time, this type of misleading is directed at the client, not the public.

For instance, if during a campaign, a donor decides they can no longer be involved, is immediately   running to the client the best decision? Or, would finding a solution first and then going to your client be a better option? Sometimes, holding out the whole truth until you have time to internally resolve the issue is the right call, despite the deception for the short term.

One of the only times it would be acceptable to keep information from the public is if doing so would put the community at a greater risk. If the repercussions fall solely on the brand, chances are a crisis communication strategy is required.

Gray areas
Somewhere in between the black and white cases are gray areas. These gray areas arise when a clear distinction between right and wrong cannot be made. Often, gray areas pose the greatest threat to a campaign’s success or failure.

In 2010, Toyota was forced to recall 8.8 million vehicles for safety defects. The company, in the initial stages of the crisis, did not know what was causing the defect. Telling the public it didn’t have an answer to a major recall would be detrimental to the brand’s image.

Toyota’s response was originally to try to save face, which ultimately led to media backlash and skewing of the public’s perception of the brand. Eventually, Toyota learned this approach was creating more damage by not being transparent. The company switched tactics and was able to restore the public’s perception.

Had Toyota (link) been transparent from the start, it may have avoided the initial backlash. These gray areas are difficult for company executives to make the right call. On occasion, such as the Toyota scandal, the wrong choice is made.

Make a call 
It is up to the public relations community to continue talking about the roles lying and deception play in practitioners’ work. The more the gray areas are talked about, the better the chance of reaching a consensus.

Each case is unique, and PR professionals must repeatedly decide the correct approach to take. Sometimes lying and deception are necessary to successfully get a campaign off the ground without spooking the client. Other times, lying and deception will create an untrustworthy environment for a brand.

Learning to sort through the cases and differentiate the black, white and gray areas is crucial to becoming a PR pro.

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