Public Relations in the Age of Alternative Facts



Let’s talk about Public Relations and “Alternative Facts.”

The bottom line is this: PR is about spin, but “alternative facts” (i.e., lying) is never okay.

  1. Because it’s ethically wrong; and
  2. Because you will be found out, and damage your client’s reputation and your own in the process.

PR vs. Sales

I work in public relations and marketing. These disciplines often get a bad rap because at their core, they are about sales.

But what’s exhilarating to me about PR is that most of the time I’m tasked not with selling widgets, but ideas.

I’m usually not trying to convince people to buy iPhones instead of Androids – or switch from Berlitz to Rosetta Stone for foreign language training.

Rather, my job is more subtle: It deals with crafting messaging – the what and the how. My stock and trade is the story that brands tell – and distribution – how that story can best be communicated to the public.

My performance is judged not by sales-per-quarter, but by media clips placed, or public attitudes changed.

The Trump Administration and “Alternative Facts”

Enter the PR machine for President Trump.

In case you missied it, the first press conference given by President Trump’s press secretary on Saturday Sean Spicer was insane.

Spicer came across as oddly belligerent and antagonist to the press.

The bigger issue, hower, was he lied to the press at least four times about easily verifiable things.

By way of review, here they are:

(On the comparatively smaller crowd that attended President Trump’s inauguration):

1. “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual.”

The Truth:

President Obama’s 2nd inauguration in 2013 also had several acres of plastic floor covering that protected and obscured the grass.

2. “All of this space [from Trump’s platform to the Washington Monument] was full when the president took the Oath of Office.”

The Truth:




3. “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

The Truth:

317,000 was the metric for the number of metro rides taken by 11:00 am for President Obama’s 2013 inaugural. Only 193,000 metro rides were taken by 11:00 am last Friday for President Trump’s inaugural.


4. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

The Truth:

Comparative photographs of the crowds on the National Mall show far fewer people attended Trump’s inauguration in-person than did President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.

The Nielsen Ratings showed 30.6 million people tuned in last Friday across 12 TV networks. This ranks as the ranked as

“the fifth highest in total viewers, behind Reagan 1982, Obama 2009, Jimmy Carter 1977 (34.1 million), and Richard Nixon 1973 (33 million). The 2013 Obama inauguration drew an audience of 20.6 million. Trump edged out Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration (29.7 million) and George W. Bush 2001 (29 million).” (Variety)

So What?

It’s not just that Sean Spicer lied so blatantly on Day 1, but what he was asked to lie about.

The danger here is clear:

If the Trump administration begins from the start obviously lying about little things – how is it ever to be trusted about real, important issues?

And then – appropriately called to task for the lies by journalists of all stripes, Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway went on the Sunday News shows the next day and characterized Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.”

That phrase is so ridiculous even dictionary maker Merriam-Webster called Conway out on it:

Public Relations Society of America

The primary trade association for PR professionals is the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

On Tuesday, it issued a press release condemning attempts by the Trump administration to use alternative facts.

PRSA, which highlights journalistic ethics as a core value, argued that

“encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals.”


Mike Rowe and Truth in Advertising

Finally, we have this charming video, courtesy of former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe.

It’s essentially him reading a sales letter by an enterprising Girl Scout who is selling cookies.

Amid all of this political discussion, it will bring a smile to your face.


But the key takeaway here?

The core of this Girl Scout’s pitch is being honest about the best — and worst — Girl Scout Cookies. She ranks them, listing the postitives and negatives of all.

A world away from alternative facts, she understands that the first step in sales is honesty — gaining your prospects trust through transparency and truth in advertising.

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