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How to Spot PR Flackery: Tips From a Professional Communicator

The public relations professional is ethically bound to tell the truth and to serve the public interest. Most PR folks and professional communicators I know struggle with ethics constantly because, frankly, honesty doesn’t always make the customer look good.

But not everybody really cares what the Public Relations Society of America has to say about ethics. That’s why we call them “flacks.”

(I don’t mind “PR dummies” so much. Those people are sort of funny, in a sad way.)

But the worst thing about watching liars cover for other liars is that they’re following the “best practices” I helped to write – but in a demented way. Like “transparency” that is really just pseudo.

In the hope that information is the best weapon, here are some ways to weed out truth from lies in professional discourse:

I. Get Smart About Slick PR Tricks

· Going on the attack to avoid being put on the defensive
· Making broad generalizations that divide people by class, gender, race, religion rather than speaking in unifying terms
· Saying the same things over and over again rather than being in the moment
· Dressing or grooming that is either overly slick or overly “casual”
· Using “pseudofacts” or “pseudostatistics” rather than real numbers, and being unable to provide a checkable source

II. Watch for Signs of Lying In An Interview

· Body language is a dead giveaway, especially eyes darting around, stiffness, and touching one’s own face
· Answering in a way that is technically true, but misleading (after all, it wouldn’t be perjury, right?)
· Not answering the question asked, and/or using canned “message” language
· Acting angry, raising one’s voice, or saying that a question is “offensive,” attacking the questioner, trying to make them seem “crazy”
· Not allowing questions in the first place

III. Don’t Settle for Superficial

· PR professionals are engaged with news professionals all the time. So watch news on different channels, including Internet websites, deliberately. Watch hearings directly and fully. Read headlines covering the U.S. from other countries. Always reflect on the larger context and issues and think about why these media channels make particular editorial choices. And of course, question whether “leaks” are really “leaks” or whether they were “dropped” on purpose.
· Locate bloggers and non-mainstream news sources who doggedly pursue a subject over time. Also consider their biases, their sources of funding, and whether they are trying to sell a product.
· Go to small-scale blogs, discussion boards, Twitter, and YouTube for unfiltered discussion of the issues. Don’t exaggerate the importance of, or discount, these sources just because they are non-professional.

At the end of the day, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice is pretty good: “Those who talk, don’t know.” But by learning the tricks of professional liars, at least you can avoid being taken for a fool.

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