Spinning. Omitting. Shading. Hedging. Stalling. Exaggerating. Overstating. Misrepresenting. Backdating. Wishful thinking. In the past, someone may have put one of those euphemisms on the table when discussing public statements, especially in a crisis.
But fabrication is no longer a viable strategy. The truth will out. And when it does, the issues you were trying to avoid will be magnified. This public relations advice is a matter of practicality, not morality. Forget ethics. Forget shame. Forget sin. Those are subjects to discuss with your priest…oh, never mind.
Perhaps it was a breakdown of societal values that led us to become a nation of liars. But the pendulum is swinging and the backlash has begun. Sad to say, it’s not remorse, recovery or religion that are reversing this trend. It’s technology.
Not only do all the news programs and websites – from Politico to the Huffington Post to the staid New York Times, trade in instant videos of public people dissembling, but the shelf life of lies has no expiration date thanks to YouTube, blogs, CNN I-Reports, Digg, Twitter and millions of wannabe documentary makers with Flip Phones.
Video cameras are not just for 7-11’s anymore. They’re in hallways, parking lots, tollbooths, sidewalks and bathrooms. And they’re in the purse and pocket of multiple witnesses to a lie or a crime.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was lambasted for pontificating (on video) that privacy should no longer be an expectation of our culture. Never mind that he used that fact as an excuse for selling his loyal users for thirty pieces of silver. He’s right.
Looking back at some historical lying in the 20th Century, we know that the media ignored the shenanigans of J. Edgar Hoover and the adultery of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower. Today, it’s exactly the opposite. They feed on it. Ask Mark Sanford, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer.
It took 30 years for voters to figure out that Connecticut Attorney General/Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal did not serve proudly in Vietnam. That’s because his lie dated back to the 1960′s and 70′s when you could get away with such exaggerations. Dusting it off for a Senate campaign in today’s insta-fact checking environment was his undoing.
Examples of public figures caught in such exaggerations over the past few years are legion. Hillary Clinton’s welcome in Bosnia by a little girl with flowers and a poem rather than enemy sniper fire. Al Gore’s intimation that he invented the Internet. Sarah Palin’s foreign policy experience. Harvard scholarship student Adam Wheeler’s admission credentials.
Resume padding is the least of it. We’ve all earned virtual MBA’s studying the financial intricacies of malfeasance from the likes of Enron, WorldComm, Countrywide, AIG, Bernie Madoff, Goldman Sachs and others. Just don’t put it on your resume.
The public has become obsessed with lies and scandal. Every tryst, toxicology screen, relationship with a regulator, safety memo, and dollar pocketed or contributed to a political candidate is fair game for media attention. If it’s high-profile enough, it will be followed by the obligatory hearing before the Congressional Theatre of the Grand Stand, the latest being the see-hear-do no evil monkeys from BP-Transocean-Halliburton.
Some top officials still don’t get it. In this post-modern era, why did BP bother to lie about releasing “only” 5,000 gallons of gas and oil into the Gulf and calling its impact relatively small? They lost all credibility when we could see for ourselves underwater videos of the gushing stream, aerial views of slime spreading for miles and close-ups of tar-covered pelicans washing ashore.
Speaking of the “ick” factor, did ex-Congressman Mark Souder have any sense of irony when he and young staff paramour shot a video together on The Joy of Abstinence? That footage ran on the nightly news more often than Cialis ads.
Videotaped payoffs of Princess Sarah Ferguson also played ad nauseum. Someone should have told her such scenes have have been de rigeur since the FBI’s Abscam video caught lawmakers taking money from “sheiks” in 1980.
It’s not just videotape either. The so-called “paper trail” of evidence is now electronic thanks to cell phone records, texts and emails that are harder to erase than permanent ink.
No matter whether you’re a public figure, a public company or a public university, every memo, bank transaction, cell phone message, photo, email rant, sext, grainy video and Facebook entry has the potential to add another inch to your nose if you choose to lie.
Not sure whether to credit Pinocchio or George Washington, but the moral to the story is the same: You cannot tell a lie.