Mommy taught me not to lie

Reading Dan Lyons' piece on the Apple / Media dance - and, let's be honest, it is a great one to watch as a PR person - one thing stuck out for me: The larger takeaway is what this episode says about how the media covers Apple. It's one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do. But it's another thing for the media to join in on the action. (Emphasis mine, of course).

The article was dead-on. There are a few corporations that get an easy pass, and have a hardcore public relations machine. Apple is one of those, and as a fanboy of Apple (and, well, a person that likes to watch and practice good PR), it is amazing to watch the way they handle press and get out the message. Apple is one of the few (the only?) companies that could probably find a hardcore Apple blogger, tie him up, beat him to a pulp, tar and feather him ... and get defended by other bloggers. It's just that Apple mystique.

But, well, it's not the job of PR to lie. We're a bridge builder, a way for reporters (and, well, social media 'reporters') to get access to the corporation, and get information out to the public. We're not supposed to be the impediment for news, the gatekeeper, but the way to help people get the stories they want. Does this mean to answer every media request, and give out products for review willy-nilly? Of course not - you use your intellect on this stuff. Come on people.

But, no, it's not about lying. What is acceptable?

Pulling the Heisman - that's fine.
Omitting facts - not lying, but, well, omission of details - that's fine.
Blatant lying - well, that's just not. Some PR people can get away with it - when you are at a hot company, you have some leeway with the press. But, well, the press doesn't forget these things. And, it will eventually catch up.

The thing is that I understand where Lyons is coming from with his piece. This is the second time he's called out PR for lying - blatantly - to him, and it really should not be acceptable. That's not how PR works, it's not how PR should work, and it's too often an occurrence.

Hell, just step outside of PR to the publicity / entertainment side of things. How often do you see a report that a publicist said "oh, no, they're not getting a divorce" ... a week before they file for divorce. Paging Liz Rosenberg and Madonna. Hell, paging ANY large entertainment publicity shop.

But, this is the problem with public relations: lying sacks of shit, as Lyons calls them, make all of us who don't engage in this type of subterfuge look awful. The blame is also with reporters, however, who have been duped by "sources familiar" to do their bidding. Journalism, as a means to report the news to the masses, has become sensationalistic and unreliable (and, at times, just lazy), and why the public has become less and less trusting of the media. It's less media and journalism in mainstream press, and more editorializing and sensationalism.

But, the reality is with the shrinking and spreading of media - the traditional is getting smaller, while the new is growing bigger (and, well, more niche and like vertical media, but no one wants to admit that about blogs) - the lies are becoming too obvious, and getting caught too easily. It's the job of public relations to relay information, or truthfully sometimes to keep information private. But if you're getting calls from a reporter on such information ... it's already leaked and out there. And, well, damage control does not mean lie and obfuscate, but rather deflect or respond.

All in all ... pretty simple rules from kindergarten, with less naïveté.



  1. The lies told by a few that tarnish the entire profession. Beginning to sound like a very old story, too old - in fact.

    As I shared with you, Lyon's is a reporter. He (all of them) should dig deeper. Lyons, after all, seemed to have fallen for the ploy himself, too. Who is really to blame here in the Apple story? Lyons doesn't have a burden to bear, too?

    All the business reporters are somewhat responsible, aren't they? Remember how they let the Enron fasco happen? What about this credit disaster? Where were the brilliant business reporters - years ago. Why didn't they see it coming? Yet, watch the talking heads ... they blame the government and the big banks. Puh-leeze!

    There was a day when we could count upon journalism to warn us of these dangers. Not today. The layoffs in newsrooms, the switch to talking opinion heads on TV - not reporting - and more has left us all in a world of hurt.

    As for Lyons' "It's one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do.", please let me have a few minutes alone with him in a room.

    Just the verbal tongue lashing alone will keep him from sitting down for a month. Another idiot that doesn't understand the broad scope of PR practice.

    Let someone use a broad brush to lash out at all journalists and see Lyons get angry. Why are these people given bylines in major magazines? Sad.

  2. What lieniency you have to lie in PR is also dictated, largely, by the industry you're in. Like you pointed out, publicists do it all the time. This is, in part, because the venue for most of these publicists-- entertainment magazines and websites-- have built themselves up on the premise that they're representing the fantastical, the celebrity, and so they too can report with at least a hint of fantasy (what we, in the real world, call a lie).

    Apple could get away with it, too, as you point out because their customer base is just that loyal.

    Take an organization like Maple Leaf or Kellogs, though, where people are dying from their mistakes, and tell me the public would allow even a shadow of a lie in their PR.

  3. Jeremy - what are your thoughts on places like Publicity Guaranteed that only charge for article placement? I know it's slightly off-topic, but I'd love to read your thoughts on it one day.

  4. I completely agree. Although I'm still in college and don't necessarily know about the harsh world of real corporate PR, I still don't quite understand where lying can be the right answer in any situation like this. That's why public relations gets such a bad wrap in the first place and labels like "spin doctors" and stuff. Like you said, omitting might even be the right thing to do in some cases, but downright lying? Why would you even risk getting caught and getting your credibilty squashed to a pulp?

  5. Jeremy,

    I completely agree with this post. I was taught that the PR guy should always be the voice of reason at the table. It is just good common sense not to lie because eventually, the truth always breaks through. I am a Mac groupie as well, but it disappoints me to know they are not practicing high standards in their PR shop. Despite their goodwill with both the public and the media, Apple will be well served to remember that no company is above the truth. Just ask JP Morgan/Chase and Lehman Brothers...

  6. I find it extremely frustrating that so many of my PR colleagues spend so much time, well, lying to INTELLIGENT people.

    It makes the job of decent, straight talking PR people that much more difficult.

    Most information is 2 searches or 2 days away from being verified/villfied so I dont even see the point these days in not being transparent.