The Truth Be Told: Root Out Clients’ Fibs

July 21, 2009

We all lie, through omission or commission, in one form or another.

And if you deny it, then that just proves my point.

When I shifted from journalism to public relations, I was reluctant to term myself a “publicist” at first. One of the biggest reasons is that I associated PR practitioners as excessively gifted in the art of obfuscation and bunk. I didn’t put a lot of stock in their integrity or commitment to accuracy.

Having fended off PR spin for two decades—some blatant, some subtle and some that doubtless snuck past my BS detector—I now try mightily to avoid the same smoke-and-mirrors tendency that mars the public relations profession.

While I counsel clients not to disclose certain pieces of information, I also prepare them to be ready to share it, when appropriate, if asked by a probing reporter.

For example, a few years ago I had one client who had created a distinctive approach to helping people finance the process of adopting a child. Problem was, she had not yet helped anyone do it.

As I saw it, this wasn’t a problem, after all. In the news release, I focused on my client’s background as an adoptive mom and gathered testimonial comments from others in the adoption field. The story received solid media coverage, with no mention of the detail about how many had availed themselves of this particular service.

No reporter had even asked, though my client was ready if one had posed the question. (She agreed with my advice to explain that she had just unveiled the program and was excited to begin helping people in this new way.)

So, no, you don’t have to lay bare every single detail, your enterprise’s long-term viability be damned. In fact, sharing too much information, too soon or even ever, is unnecessary and potentially disastrous.

But that doesn’t mean you lie. The facts that you do share must be accurate, because even “little white lies” can wreak substantial damage on your reputation.

It’s the publicist’s job to protect the client by stressing that they must be prepared to prove the claims they make. One of the traits of an effective publicist is to anticipate, and emulate, the skepticism that hard-core, bulldog journalists bring to their work.

In my journalism days, I found some areas of people’s lives were especially fertile ground for the creation of tall tales. Publicists ought to be especially vigilant when their clients talk about:

1. Military service and/or decorations.

Lying in this realm is a huge no-no, on moral as well as pragmatic grounds. In exposing one phony vet a few years ago, I interviewed well-organized, highly motivated individuals from veteran watchdog groups. They are dedicated to outing fakes.

Trust me: If you try to concoct a term of military service, let alone a Purple Heart, they will hunt you down and expose you.

2. Academic background and credentials.

For the poster child of this phenomenon, see George O’Leary, the short-lived Notre Dame football coach who also padded his athletic resume. All it took for this saga to unravel, and for O’Leary to lose his job, was one reporter contacting the college where he supposedly played and studied. Try this tactic and you get an “F” in common sense.

3. Athletic accomplishments.

Especially nowadays, with websites and other resources that provide a virtual play-by-play of anyone who played in the pro ranks, lies in this arena are easily debunked. And college or amateur sports also have exhaustive records, so unless you want to fib about being the best pole vaulter at some Division III school that no longer exists, stick to embellishment about your golf game with the buddies last weekend.

4. Business history/successes.

Candidly, this is one category where it is especially tough to detect BS. Financial data, such as sales and profits, are often private, enabling the scurrilous to buffalo media that have little choice but to accept data and other claims at face value.

A year ago, while reporting for a national trade magazine for its “30 Under 30” feature, I detected one highly questionable candidate. There was just something about the timeline of his young career that didn’t add up—too many dates and figures that he was shifting around when I pressed for details. In the end, I steered the publication away from him. Within a few months, bolstering my suspicions, he had moved on to another field.

Sometimes, the misrepresentations are subtle and sniffing out lies is tough.

I once profiled a high school and college football star who confidently asserted that he had played briefly in the National Football League. His college career was not in question and it was easy enough to confirm he had been selected in the NFL draft, but I could find no record of his having played in a regular-season game.

It was a peripheral detail, so it did not warrant “gotcha” treatment in my story. I simply left it alone, printing neither his claim nor my research refuting it.

Today, through a Google search, I see he is the vice president of a local chapter of NFL Alumni.

It’s apparent that he highly values his association, tenuous and murky as it appears to be, with the NFL. Maybe it’s an asset in business or personal networking. Perhaps it’s a powerful conversation-starter with some folks.

Whatever the case, if he is still playing on the edges of truth, it’s needlessly foolish. When it comes to lying, if people see smoke, they suspect fire and your reputation is liable to go up in flames.

So don’t be afraid to challenge your clients on their claims, especially if they seem far-fetched. It’s infinitely better that you, rather than the rest of the world, are the one catching them.

This essay first appeared in the July 21, 2009 edition of Barks & Bites at Bulldog Reporter.com.

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