The proposition was intentionally designed to be both inflammatory and counterintuitive.
“Truth is overrated, less relevant than ever, and rarely provides a competitive advantage in business,” said Emmanuel Tchividjian, principal and owner of the Markus Gabriel group, an ethics and communication consulting practice. “Therefore, we should not make truth a priority in the practice of our businesses.”
Tchividjian was, of course, not truly advocating corporate untruths He was a moderator, establishing an academic debate that took place at the Public Relations Society of America’s international conference, held recently in Boston.
We were fortunate enough to be on that panel, arguing the importance of truth against provocateurs defending and rationalizing what were generously described as “white lies.”
We need to stress, bold and underlined in a giant font, that those praising value of strategic untruths did so in order to play their part on the panel.
So, what arguments did these post-truth advocates present?
“We all tell white lies sometimes. There’s no harm if I tell my kid there is a Santa Claus. It makes them happy and there isn’t a problem,” argued Rebecca Rehm, an ethics and compliance business leader with a background in training and education. She is currently a manager, compliance business partner at Olympus Corporation of the Americas.
No stranger to ethical debates, Rehm spent five years at the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, where she was the director of member education and certification.
Most fibs, Rehm argued, fall into the category of “no harm, no foul.” A bit of flattery and assurance here, dodging hurt feelings there.
“We cheat a little, but we rationalize it in our minds. ‘Yeah, I used the company laptop for my kid’s project, but it is OK because I spend a lot of time working on the weekends and never get paid for it,” she said. “We know we are breaking the rules and will deny it, even if the boss asks.”
“As artificial intelligence gets better, we might be able to pump a bunch of information and stimuli to people and accordingly change their behaviors. We need to become extra careful about the information that we provide to people given our incredible and growing ability to control data.”
Nir Eisikovits, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts-Boston
Research shows that people will cheat to the point that they can still consider themselves good people, Rehm said, citing a study that claimed people will lie, on average, 1.6 times a day.
Joining “Team Truth-is-Overrated” was Joseph Trahan III, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves with more than 35 years of public relations and related training experience.
His argument was summed up with one word on a whiteboard: “Trump.”
Let critics and newspapermen argue the inherent truths in his statements, speeches, and tweets. “He created a persona of total success,” Trahan said. “Now, he is the most powerful businessman in the entire world ... It is the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ Don’t look behind the curtain.”
“We all tell lies. It is just a question of who believes those lies,” he added.
“While it may be true that people lie a lot, that doesn’t mean they should,” countered Nir Eisikovits, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. The slippery slope we slide down leads to an inability to differentiate fact from lie and conspiracy theories from news.
“If you don’t have a North Star, you find yourself heading toward trouble,” Eisikovits said.
Protecting the value of truth is “especially relevant for business purposes,” he added. “As artificial intelligence gets better, we might be able to pump a bunch of information and stimuli to people and accordingly change their behaviors. We need to become extra careful about the information that we provide to people given our incredible and growing ability to control data.”
For us, the argument was a pretty simple one: “a lie will always be revealed.” From fudged fuel ratings, to the health of a CEO, or side effects of a drug, we live in an age where it is very, very unlikely that an untruth can remain unchallenged.
Mom had “eyes in the back of her head” and a radar for knowing who initiated horseplay in the back seat of the station wagon. We have a doggedly determined press, often fueled by whistleblowers.
Social media is often the vehicle for the rapidly spread infection of untruths, but it is also, just sometimes, the antidote. Millions of armchair detectives are ready, willing, and able to be lie detectors. From a company perspective, thinking that its executives and others in the know can pull the wool over the eyes of shareholders, regulators, and others in the government and Congress is a risky, high-stakes bet.
And yes, over time artificial intelligence and behavioral analytics will step in when humans are fooled.
Don’t be lulled into thinking carefully selected omissions are as good as a lie but harder to reveal. Semantics is no match for scorned shareholders, many of whom will eventually fill in the blanks.
Lying may be all the rage in politics, but there is also a reinvigorated industry of fact checkers, fed by often highly compensated whistleblowers.
Would you be so bold as to lie in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing? If not, leave the fibs out of press releases, conference calls, and investor materials. The truth is out there, it will ultimately emerge, and the consequences will be terrible.
Not lying is not just a matter of ethics and “good business.” Squelching reputation risk is increasingly crucial for protecting the bottom line.
History has taught us that the occasions for painful honesty are almost completely forgotten. Liars, however, live in infamy. And, if their lies end up being material to shareholders, they may end up living those infamous lies behind bars.