They’re real! I’m talking about strange parallel universes like in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where nothing is quite like it seems at first sight. In these worlds, reality and dream, facts and fiction become all blurred and unrecognizable in a kind of post-truth haze. All you have to do is click your way through the internet and enter a world where last night terrorists wreaked havoc in Sweden and German politician Renate Künast crams her compassion for a murderer into a 140 character tweet.
Now, if your hair is standing on end, don’t worry – it’s only fake news. Hoaxes like the ones conspiracy theorists and some statesmen keep churning out in the digital space. These false reports are anything but journalistic, since they serve a propagandistic purpose. From character assassination – the targeted defamation of a person – to illicit interference with political events. This has disastrous consequences for serious media, since their reputation melts like ice cream during dog days.
Fake News, PR and truth
Professional PR is suffering a similar fate. As interest-driven communication, it is struggling with various allegations ever since, including whitewashing and prevarication. The industry is fully aware of those prejudices. How else could one explain the determined attempts at dissociation across agencies, like the company “XXXXX” that portrays itself as a no-bullshit service provider? Because bullshit is a thorny issue – and a rather shady one at that. Already in 1986, in his trenchant essay On Bullshit, U.S. philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt strikingly recorded that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. […] The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.“
Now, some critics do precisely that – they accuse PR of being downright wrong. It is not without irony that those verbal attacks come from within the industry. VW’s former head of communication, for instance, a man known for being overly outspoken, once baldly stated that communications experts are allowed to lie. As a consequence, PR is immediately labelled irrelevant, in stark contrast to presumably objective quality journalism. This contempt is mirrored by a recent study, which reveals that only nine percent of the Germans trust the statements of company leaders.
Lying is not a business model
So does PR produce nothing but hot air? By no means – because not least in terms of authentic storytelling, brazen lies are a complete no-go. A fake story wouldn’t go unnoticed for long, since it only takes a few clicks to do a debunking fact check. No communications expert would be so impertinent – let alone be so dumb – to spread plain falsities. Because when this bubble of lies pops, it irrevocably damages a company’s reputation, often leading to economic losses as well. PR thrives on trust, and it takes long, hard work to build it. Giving a story a spin according to one’s needs doesn’t make it propaganda either: well-founded use cases and press releases aren’t intended to humiliate competition and overrate one’s own achievements, after all.
However, it is irrefutable that sometimes the line between legitimate promotion and irresponsible misinformation is a very fine one in PR. And yet, the fruitful collaboration between journalists and PR experts shows that impactful communication doesn’t require any bullshitting at all.
What is your opinion on the relation between PR and bullshit? Tell us more about it!