The recent flap over former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s revelations that he lied to reporters and felt misled by the administration should serve as a cautionary tale for school leaders who might be tempted to try to soft-peddle bad news into something less damaging.
McClellan’s ethical lapses, first by continuing to spout the party line while doubting its veracity, and then by bashing a former employer in a tell-all book despite having been privileged to confidential discussion and information, might seem extreme.
But the reality is that most top officials–whether they’re running a country, a corporation, or a school district–struggle with truth-telling and full disclosure. That’s not because all leaders are inherently unethical, but because they are, after all, human. And human beings tend to have a hard time being brutally honest with themselves, let alone others.
So, while truthfulness and transparency–though painful–ultimately win public trust, it can be very difficult to convince leaders of this fact. Optimistic by nature, leaders tend to see the glass half full instead of half empty.
Normally, this characteristic is admirable, because it helps leaders and their organizations persevere when times get tough. It also gives leaders the confidence they need to take risks and tackle tough issues. Optimism helps leaders stay resilient–they don’t stay down long. Like the old Timex watch, they "take a licking and keep on ticking."
Sometimes, however, this trait gets in the way of reality. Sometimes, leaders are so set on a certain course of action, they simply tune out anything and anyone that doesn’t fit in with their preconceived idea of what the right course of action is.
Communication scholars have researched this tendency for decades. It’s called selective perception or cognitive dissonance, and in addition to filtering out information that doesn’t connect with our worldview, this phenomenon tends to lead us to make decisions based on emotion, rather than facts.
This disconnect gets even greater in times of stress, crisis, or loss, when denial and defensiveness start rearing their ugly heads–causing even good leaders and organizations to fall back into a defensive, circle-the-wagons mentality that doesn’t brook dissent.
Other leaders–the unethical or despotic ones–simply see lying as a means to an end. If the end result is for the greater good (or their own good), then it doesn’t matter if truth is the first casualty. I’m not close enough to anyone in the Bush administration to know which is which in this situation, although like most of the American public, I have my suspicions.
I don’t know what role McClellan really played in making the decisions and developing the strategies he now decries, or whether he simply served as the messenger, the face and voice of the administration.
Many politicians use a "press secretary" model for communications, in which the top communicator really is just a hired gun who pushes out the administration’s message. Many school districts use this model, too. Unfortunately, as the McClellan debacle illustrates, this old-school approach is hopelessly outdated.
Professionally trained and credentialed public relations practitioners bring a wealth of knowledge to the table regarding communications research and theory, trends, and best practices. They also understand human psychology and group dynamics, and they know how to build consensus among disparate groups and competing agendas.
While technical skills–such as writing, public speaking, speech writing, blogging, and message crafting–are still prized, these attributes have taken a back seat to research and strategy development. Top professionals are valued for solving problems, creating solutions, and offering wise counsel, not spin.
Superintendents and other school leaders that keep their top communicators at arm’s length do themselves a disservice. If school public relations professionals aren’t involved in the decision-making process and don’t understand all the various options considered and rejected before a decision is reached, they can’t offer strategic advice and counsel regarding the best and most appropriate communications approach.
The best public relations people push hard for full disclosure and often serve as the conscience of the organization as they advocate for ethical, humane, and transparent policy decisions and communications.
Rather than lie for a client or an employer, top agencies and public relations professionals often decline potential new business or resign from accounts (or employers) they believe don’t serve the public good.
This doesn’t mean that communicators are going to agree with every management decision, even if they’ve been a part of the process. It does mean that they take their profession’s ethical standards seriously and won’t violate their professional or personal values on matters of integrity.
It’s disappointing, but not surprising, when national pundits such as CBS Sunday Morning’s Andrew Cohen don’t get this. "Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed," writes Cohen on his blog. "The reason companies or governments hire oodles of PR people is because PR people are trained to be slickly untruthful or half-truthful. Misinformation and disinformation are the coin of the realm, and it has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican."
After all, Cohen’s job is to provoke, not educate or inform. So, while Cohen finds the notion of an honest PR person laughable, most I’ve worked with during the past 25 years understand the inherent power of communications and are devoted to the ethical practice of a profession that can work for–or against–the public good.
Communications without ethical constraints is propaganda, not public relations, which seeks to build relationships with the people and groups upon whose support the organization depends. It pays to know the difference. If we want to build trust with the parents and public, we have to earn it. We need to make everything we do in public education as transparent as possible and engage stakeholders in the decision-making process.
We need to listen more and talk less. And when we make a decision, we need to tell stakeholders why we made it and what other options were considered. In a society where cynicism reigns and trust in public figures is at an all-time low, honesty truly is the best policy.