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Honesty Must Underpin Persuasion

Josh Cobden

Last month, Caroline Dennett, a consultant for Shell, publicly resigned from her position, pointing to her employer’s “double talk on climate.” She is not the first employee to quit Big Oil in the name of honesty, and this will continue in many sectors until companies resist the temptation to bend the truth.

As the Proof Strategies CanTrust Index reveals, public trust in institutions is steadily declining, and any degree of perceived dishonesty is a liability.  Honesty is a crucial component of effective persuasion, and it requires a critical eye to ensure that what is being said genuinely aligns with what is being done. To achieve this, a mix of optimism and skepticism is needed.

The Optimism/Skepticism Mix

Optimism is a key ingredient in the success of any communications campaign. It’s what allows us to take risks, think creatively, and encourage brands to take charge of their own narrative. For example, a dusty old brand that wants to modernize and be seen as cool. It may not be an easy task, but with optimism, it is possible. When success doesn’t seem likely, optimism is what drives us to find a creative solution that can make it work.

On the other hand, skepticism is also required to stress-test a campaign’s lead claim. For example, a brand that makes a health or sustainability promise that isn’t backed up by science needs someone on the inside to be skeptical before someone on the outside calls bullshit. This requires bravery and a thick skin, but it usually pays off.

The Honesty Imperative

The optimism/skepticism mix changes with each assignment, and when done right, the ratio delivers persuasive alchemy. But the mix curdles when PR pros either allow themselves to compromise their honesty or feel forced to do so by their employer or client.

Sometimes dishonesty is obvious, such as a car company lying about vehicle emissions, or the tobacco industry’s preposterous claims that smoking brought health benefits. Other times, dishonesty is more nuanced, such as the disingenuous claims that drove Ms. Dennett to resign.

At Proof Strategies, integrity (which includes honesty) is among our core values, and we have declined opportunities or ended client relationships when expected to exaggerate the truth. Standing up to dishonesty can cause short-term pain – including forgoing opportunities or ending relationships – but brings benefits later: Employees not quitting in protest, but instead feeling proud to work for an ethical firm; not sacrificing our integrity and alienating clients that are behaving with honesty; and not least, avoiding being dragged into scandal – the ultimate irony for a PR firm.

Tips for organizations:

  1. Never pressure employees or partners to lie. The truth almost always surfaces and delivers swift and painful repercussions.
  2. Instead of punishing employees who fight for honesty, reward them for giving you a chance to course correct. Whistleblowers usually go public only after their efforts are thwarted.

Tips for PR professionals (in order of need):

  1. Dial up your skepticism: when you detect dishonesty, speak up. This can short-circuit the journey to a lie.
  2. Explain the many risks of dishonesty, using real-life examples such Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, or Purdue Pharma’s deadly deceit.
  3. Point to your profession’s code of ethics, such as those from the Canadian Public Relations Society (honesty is near the top).
  4. Exit the relationship.

Without honesty, success will be short and punishment harsh. So be optimistic. Be skeptical. But above all, be honest.