For the past 40 years, I would have expected to answer this question in this one sentence: “All audiences have a reasonable expectation that an organization is responsible for the facts it puts into the public domain.” For clarity, I might have added: “Expect facts to be questioned, and those that cannot be proven may need to be corrected. If you routinely present or defend false information, or do so at a crucial moment, you will harm your reputation.” For most of us, and our clients, that would have been the end of the discussion.
But some would say it is not that simple anymore. The proliferation of misleading or outright false information, disseminated mainly through digital media, seems to have given many people and organizations license to make facts optional and the truth fungible. Even basic assumptions widely accepted within the scientific community are up for political grabs. Corporate and brand managers, and institutional leaders of all kinds can’t be blamed for questioning whether the essential rules of communications have changed.
So it falls to us as professional communicators to break this down and examine the question. (While the context of concern about fake news and alternative facts is not exclusively American, and many of us operate internationally, I am based in the US, so I will answer from a US perspective.)
This blog was originally published on The PR Council website for a new blog series on ethics issues.