‘Alternative facts,’ travel bans spark backlash in PR and beyond

The PRSA speaks out about pros’ responsibility, and execs from high-profile companies respond to Trump’s executive order that bars citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S.

Why are organizations speaking out? Beyond that, should yours?

Airlines were sent scrambling after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and four other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The order, signed Friday afternoon, caused widespread protests that continued even after a federal judge in New York blocked part of the order.

Several airlines issued statements, mainly focusing on relaying necessary instructions to travelers as well as a promise for updated information. However, it didn’t take long for other organizations to make statements of their own.

Executives at technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple issued statements about the ban, while others acted out to help those stranded or others trying to help.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, posted the following:

Apple’s chief, Tim Cook, issued a letter to employees that read, in part:

There are employees at Apple who are directly affected by yesterday’s immigration order. Our HR, Legal and Security teams are in contact with them, and Apple will do everything we can to support them. We’re providing resources on AppleWeb for anyone with questions or concerns about immigration policies. And we have reached out to the White House to explain the negative effect on our coworkers and our company.

As I’ve said many times, diversity makes our team stronger. And if there’s one thing I know about the people at Apple, it’s the depth of our empathy and support for one another. It’s as important now as it’s ever been, and it will not weaken one bit. I know I can count on all of you to make sure everyone at Apple feels welcome, respected and valued.

Business Insider reported that Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, which had members working through the weekend to assist stuck travelers. The organization raised more than $24 million online after additional tech leaders, including Slack’s chief executive, Nest’s founder, the chief executive of Stripe and more pledged to match donations.

As more organizations are responding to the Trump administration’s moves, what can PR pros take from the decision to take a stand?

The importance of taking a stand

Though publicly announcing a position on controversial societal or political issues might seem like a terrible decision, many brand managers are being prompted to do so—by an executive who speaks out for the organization, consumers who are increasingly expecting companies to take a stand, or situations where silence can do further harm.

Such was the case last week, when the Public Relations Society of America’s 2017 national chair, Jane Dvorak, released a statement in response to the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”:

Truth is the foundation of all effective communications. By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy.

The Public Relations Society of America, the nation’s largest communications association, sets the standard of ethical behavior for our 22,000 members through our Code of Ethics. Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals.

PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.

In a time when many PR pros are wondering whether they should speak out or keep quiet—what brought the PRSA to take a stand?

“As an organization, ethical behavior is a cornerstone of all that we do,” says Dvorak. “The public is best served when they have information that is transparent.”

Dvorak continues:

We feel it is important for PR and communication professionals to always, in all circumstance, use ethics as our decision-making guide. The PRSA Code of Ethics and the Ethical Standard Advisories that supplement that code are an important guide for both our members and the broader profession. We felt that this message was important at this time as the questions of communication ethics grew in importance among our members and the broader public.

Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations and author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, says that PR pros might also risk being perceived as unethical when they don’t set the record straight:

Whenever a high-profile person—in this case, people speaking on behalf of the President—invents “facts” to justify a policy position, it’s important to note that as something outside the bounds of ethical public relations. The risk of not speaking is that the public continues to conflate ethical and unethical communications, meaning we’re all subject to being painted with the same broad (and mostly inaccurate) brush.

Stacey Miller, director of communications at Cision, agrees.

“The perception that ‘alternative facts’ is part of what our profession does is not only extremely damaging, but [also] incorrect,” she says.

“The public relations field has, for many years, endured a stereotype of being a shady, dishonest industry driven primarily by spin,” Phillips says. “Those of us dedicating our careers to public communications know that, despite a few bad apples, that’s not true—and the efforts to set the record straight about the ethics driving the profession are important.”

How PR pros can fight back

There are a few things PR pros can do to fight back against those lowering the industry’s standards.

Dvorak—who says “spin” isn’t a PR tactic, but instead “a phrase forced upon our profession,” says that it’s crucial for communicators to be honest—and accountable:

Public relations and communication practitioners tell the stories of their companies, organizations and associations. That is what we do, and PRSA looks to all PR and communication practitioners to be accountable for honest and accurate communications.”

Miller agrees, saying transparency is at the foundation of effective communication.

“To work past the ‘spin doctor’ persona, communications professionals must have an unwavering truth in their craft,” Miller says. “The moment this is questioned by the public is the moment we lose our credibility. Transparency must be a cornerstone in the building blocks of our stories.”

This transparency and dedication to honesty should be a facet of every element in a PR campaign—from talking to consumers to pitching stories to reporters.

John Pelle, head of external communications at AbleTo, says:

PR professionals need to be steadfast in their commitment to journalism as the fourth estate. I begin every conversation with a journalist the same way – I will never tell you what to write. I will never review your copy. The lines between press and PR used to be sacred. We need to support our journalist colleagues as they face unprecedented backlash from the highest office.

PR pros should also distance themselves from communicators who refuse to keep the same ethics and transparency standards.

“Ethical public relations practitioners have a professional obligation to reject business from those who place demands for such dishonest communications upon them—and the rest of the profession must isolate those who don’t,” Phillips says.

Don’t forget to be sincere, either.

“Authenticity is still the name of the game,” Pelle says.

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Topics: PR

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