“(The public’s democratic judgment is) not to be relied upon…they could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above.”
–Edward Bernays, the “Father of Modern PR”
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that,
you’ll do things differently.” – Billionaire Warren Buffett
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
— Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels
Renee T. Walker, head of a strategic communications consultancy, pondered the role of media and its relation to truth following the 2016 presidential election in the winter edition of PRSA’s The Public Relations Strategist. While my colleagues and I always stress the importance of truth and credibility, “It was interesting to watch Trump lead the media through one rabbit hole after another…to defy conventional PR rules…to clearly demonstrate…that all publicity, the good, the bad and the outrageously ugly, can deliver unexpected results,” she wrote.
Warren Buffett’s quote about ruining a reputation didn’t hold true for Mr. Trump, but Joseph Goebbels’ observation did. Any one of nearly 300 (according to The New York Times) public insults and the countless untruths he uttered or tweeted would have sunk other candidates’ campaigns. Edward Bernays’ reference to the public’s need to “be guided from above” could refer to the media’s role as fact-checkers and truth tellers, but instead, “(the media) opted for the short-term gains rather than addressing the long-term and significant issue of eroding the public’s trust,” Walker noted.
This new post-truth era gives educators pause. How do we teach that spin–the purposeful bending of truth–is a no-no, even though a presidential candidate won an election by lying 70 percent of the time, according to politifact.com? “We should conduct a post-mortem on this election cycle and examine the lessons learned regarding the power of dogmatic branding,” Walker said. “Mass media will need to address its credibility and trustworthiness issues through the resurgence of investigative journalism rather than the current ‘infotainment’ and sensationalism approach.” The same could certainly be said about the approach to public relations, and that’s just how we’ll continue to teach it.