Public Distrusts Professional Communicators

By Stoff, Rick | St. Louis Journalism Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Public Distrusts Professional Communicators


Stoff, Rick, St. Louis Journalism Review


Credibility is an issue looming ever larger for professional communicators, It used to be wise to undertake a proactive, perceptive public dialogue to make sure that one's company or clients could be believed and trusted.

Today we not only have to worry about our own image and credibility, but the fact that more and more people don't seem to believe or trust anybody. There is a perception that too many public figures and businesses are all too willing to lie when the need arises.

Unfortunately, even to the professional communicator it seems that deception is one of the hurdles that must be overcome in public debates. When it became apparent that such phenomena were erasing public trust, new tactics arose to take advantage of that: If your opponents have the benefit of logic on their side, destroying trust and believability in general can bring the debate back down to your level.

For people who make their living disseminating messages for employers and clients, it is clear to see that there is a short future for communicators in a world where communication isn't effective.

The Public Relations Society of America, which met in St. Louis recently, attacked the issue in a national conference titled "Telling the Truth: Building Credibility in an Incredible World."

"Research studies abound in data that the public distrusts the communications they hear. Many people simply don't trust our corporations and clients to deal with them fairly," said Luis Morales of Paoli, Pa., outgoing national president of PRSA.

Jerry Bryan, vice president of corporate communications at Sverdrup Corp. in St. Louis, was chairman of the conference. "People are numbed by hyperbole, distortion and weasel words. Without truth we really don't have a profession," he said during the opening conference session.

Dr. Lynne V. Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and an avowed conservative, stimulated discussion for days with her views on today's truths and political correctness.

"How do you work in a society that has a widespread disbelief of the truth? We all have personal and professional reasons to worry," Cheney said. "The current thought is that there is no ultimate truth, only truths shaped by race, gender and class.

"Today the concept of truth is something you use to promote your political agenda. The notion that there is no such thing as truth has invaded our schools and our universities.

"The whole idea of objectivity has fallen into disrepute. One of the places this has happened is in journalism," she said.

Cheney, who hosts the program "Sunday Crossfire" on CNN and has written a book titled "Telling the Truth," referred to a survey that determined that 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton in the presidential campaign of 1992. She tabbed Clinton as an example of truth-shaping.

"There never has been a president so good at creating realities and getting other people do believe it," Cheney said. "The task of politics today is to create the realities you want people to believe."

While Cheney's criticisms of political correctness focused largely on Clinton and ethnic and minority groups, she herself seemed to exemplify selective vision.

She didn't reflect on her own party's contributions to the creation of realities. How about Bob Dole's presidential campaign? As a senator, his career included special favors for and financial support from such interests as bananas, wine and tobacco, none of which comes from his home state. But just days before Cheney's St. Louis speech, Dole closed his campaign trying to focus attention on Clinton's ethics, repeatedly asking with indignation, "Where is the outrage? Where is the outrage?"

Yes, truth certainly is an objective substance. …

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