Only one professional communicator took me up on my Tuesday-morning request to fess up to backing President Trump.
It was Writing Boots booster and longtime correspondent Glynn Young. Glynn is an award-winning communication exec whose long career at Monsanto was punctuated by a short stint running comms for the St. Louis Public Schools. Young voted for Trump because he couldn't countenance Clinton's dishonestly.
How do I back a President who seems to lie daily? I don't. It's that simple. He needs to be held accountable, and I have every confidence that the news media will do that. And likely overdo that. And we're going to have four years of open warfare between two institutions increasingly mistrusted.
Trump is like several executives I've written speeches for — a bit more extreme, perhaps, but right there in that CEO mold.
I try to vote as a whole person. I don't put my communicator's hat on, or my religious faith hat on, or my writer's hat on. There's no question that I'm a "values voter," which made this election almost impossible. There were few if any values to be seen, and those that were were generally awful.
Young’s less-than-robust defense of the Trump administration was the only one I received despite having reached out to several conservative communication execs and having at least one other person reach out to conservative communicators on my behalf.
But meanwhile, something remarkable happened. In a statement whose cajones are unprecedented in my 25 years of watching the communication industry, the Public Relations Society of America spoke out against the Trump administration’s media communication.
Under the headline, “PRSA Statement on ‘Alternative Facts,’” and undersigned by the Society’s 2017 Chair Jane Dvorak, Tuesday’s statement read in its entirety:
Truth is the foundation of all effective communications. By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy.
The Public Relations Society of America, the nation's largest communications association, sets the standard of ethical behavior for our 22,000 members through our Code of Ethics. Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals.
PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.
The statement got picked up by Politico and Fortune, which ran it under the headline, “Even the Trade Group for PR Flacks Thinks ‘Alternative Facts’ Are a Bad Idea.”
I could find no member blowback on Twitter, just lots of support, the median comment being, "Bravo, @PRSA. #AlternativeFacts are lies & lies have no place in PR."
And now, PRSA is obliquely but unmistakably using its stand as a member recruitment tool, tweeting yesterday, "Do you support ethical #PR practices? Join PRSA now & take the code of ethics pledge."
I followed up with Dianne Chase, the chair of PRSA’s smaller but still mighty rival trade organization, the International Association of Business Communicators. Did she have a reaction to PRSA’s statement, or a stance on making such statements in the future?
Chase didn’t make specific reference to “alternative facts,” but she referred to IABC's Code of Ethics:
We stand by what is stated in our Code:
"As a professional communicator, you have the potential to influence economies and affect lives. This power carries with it significant responsibilities.
“The International Association of Business Communicators requires its members to agree to the IABC Code of Ethics. This code serves as a guide to making consistent, responsible, ethical and legal choices in all of our communications."
Now, a lot of civilians might laugh at the idea of PR people piously quoting from their ethics statements. But weirdly, PR people—and not journalists, who haven't known whether to shit or wind their wristwatches since Trump came down the pike—may be the ones with the most influence at this insane moment in history.
If PR people—from corporations, from foundations, from universities, and yes, from government—if they just keep doing what they've always been doing, if they continue to adhere to the standards they've always adhered to (even if they've adhered to them imperfectly) they'll soon be seen as radical social moralists by comparison to the Trump gang. They'll be sought after by journalists as trusted sources, and maybe even valued by the society around them.
Communication people who are looking for a way to mitigate the political or the social or even just the professional influence of President Trump ought to put their mouths where their money is, and cheer their associations on—and meanwhile, stand personally for upright communication in their own jobs.
Which will be easier said than done. A communication correspondent in a federal government agency refers to the Chinese curse, telling me: "I'm in a very 'interesting' place with trying to decide what's next and what red lines I won't cross. In so many ways, I'm thinking through the current public discussion about what constitutes politics, and when I need to take a stand on a moral issue. I can certainly say I'm not okay with writing alternative 'alternative facts.' Beyond that, I'm feeling it out. … And oh by the way, I have to think about paying the mortgage and having healthcare for [my family]."
To the extent that he and thousands of others do find their red lines—or if their red lines fine them, and they recognize them and find ways to hold them without losing their jobs—communication people could make bigger difference than they ever have before.
And if the idea of a public relations resistance sounds preposterous to you—is it any unlikelier than everything else that's going on in the these strange days?