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A place to discuss terrible public relations and marketing.

Tuesday

07

October 2014

How PR People Are Liars, According To A Former CIA Group's Book

by Ed Zitron

If you're looking for the worst blog posts on the internet, LinkedIn has created their own blog post network. This post was about why reporters hate PR people. This untouched and never-written-about-ever post was inspired by my book. At first I was touched, then I saw it was literally the problem.

Reporters hate PR people because we as an industry - including the political and 'bad people' arms that deliberately misinform and hide things - are populated by userous, self-aggrandizing arses. The book Spy The Lie, written by former CIA officers Philip Houston, Michael Floyd & Susan Carnicero with Don Tennant, is the very definition of why PR is full of lies and liars.

Let's say it again: Most people in PR lie. That's why people keep saying it. Deception is lying. What comes out of some of our faces - to clients on calls, to reporters in pitches - is a carefully-constructed lie. Oh sure, we're not saying something that's not true per se, but I mean, we are manipulating and massaging and chewing up other truths to cover up the existence of another truth.

The problem is in our ever-more passive-aggressive society and in the hands of the most passive-aggressive people in the universe, we're lying about lying.

And my most troubling feeling is that we are lying to ourselves about doing it. Many have convinced themselves a lie is a simple untruth - the sky is green, dogs are actually really small horses. These lies happen, but they're very, very occasional. No, PR people lie constantly - hell, I've heard a few today.

Because lies are not just telling the truth. Lies are truth-dissonance. They are a distortion of reality.

The book defines two ways in which a lie is a lie - clusters and timing. You can't just say "oh that's a thing, they're lying" unless you know a blunt truth about it. I am paraphrasing, so any little details are my own balls-up and not, ironically, a lie.

Ultimately humans aren't lie-detectors. Even if you put someone through these and they match up perfectly to the rules, you just know one thing - there's a problem.

Timing refers specifically to when the lie happens. They say that the first deceptive behavior must begin within 5 seconds of the question. The further you are from the stimulus, the further you are from the truth.

Clusters are the groups of deceptive behaviors.

Here're some of the most common ways lies can propogate (though not for sure), straight from the book. To quote the author, here're some deceptive verbal behaviors they use "when the facts aren't their ally." You ideally need clusters - groups of deceptive behaviors - to really know a lie.

Failure To Answer: "If you ask someone a question and they don't give you the answer you're looking for, there's a reason for that...have you ever spoken to a person who just can't seem to get to the point?"

In this case, it's the PR person who when you ask them "what did you get done this week" can't give you as straight answer. "We committed to a strong outreach campaign that hit our targets. We had some conversations." That's actually not the answer - that's things they did that sort of may have maybe led to that. The truth would be "we didn't get anything."

Or maybe it's a product and they get asked "does it do this," and they veer into why that's not important to the industry. Or "it's maybe coming in the future at some point."

Deeper ways would be to look at how Uber says mostly the same thing whenever something bad happens. Notice how safety is their number #1 priority. Notice how in no case here has there been a directly address of the problem.

Denial Problems: "Closely related to the failure to answer"

“Closely related to the failure to answer is the absence of an explicit denial of something in your question that involves an act of wrongdoing, or has consequences associated with it.”

This is a classic in PR. "Well, you don't realise, it's a process. It's a process getting this done." Hell, I've said this - because sometimes it is. Sometimes you don't have an immediate report on something because a story hasn't run yet because the reporter has X reasons for not doing it yet. That's...it. However, this conversation is often more along the lines of "well you don't get what we're doing, it's a deep process of communication that requires a back and forth." Most of the time it doesn't and they just haven't got anything.

This is also a form of gas-lighting. Client, you be crazy for not getting what I'm doing. You don't get it.

There's also the non-specific denial - the "I didn't do anything," or "we're doing everything we can." This is, according to the book, psychologically letting yourself off the hook without actually admitting to doing something.

Reluctance and Refusal To Answer
"Sometimes, we’ll ask a person a question and he’ll say something like, “I’m not sure I’m the right person to talk to.”

Sometimes this is true. Sometimes. I'll often say "I know all that I know here, and another person is better to answer it." It is also a deceptive tactic.

Then again, you may just not want to answer because the answer sucks. Like if a reporter has a real problem with your app, and the answer is "well, that does really suck about that app."

My personal favourite, though, is this:
Isolated delivery of denial. If in response to a question about wrongdoing, a person gives you a “no” response, but buries it in a long-winded answer, that’s important. If the percentage of the answer that relates to the denial is relatively small, that’s a bad thing. Consider it a deceptive indicator."

This is the most common of all PR deception: A story isn't running, and here are a billion reasons why. Or reporters haven't responded to anything, but look at all the "stuff" we "did" and here's a long-winded description as to the complexity of our outreach, the breadth of reporters and the "angles" we're approaching. Oh, that release didn't get pickup. Well you see it's because versus either just admitting you fucked up, that the release was boring or that the product wasn't great.

"Why doesn't the thing you pitched me do the thing you said it did as well as you said it did?" - in the PR hype machine, sometimes hyperbole is just all over a pitch. The answer here will never, ever be as up front as "I fucked up and I was wrong," which is actually the perfect answer.

Repeating The Question. "Why might a deceptive person repeat a question? We think of it as buying time, and ultimately that’s the goal. But what’s happening, according to behavioral psychologists, is he’s probably trying to fill in what would otherwise appear to be a very awkward moment of silence.”

This is a time-saving measure. "What did we do this week?" being the simplest.

Nonanswer Statements. The psychology behind nonanswer statements is much the same as that associated with repeating the question—avoiding that awkward silence and buying time to figure out how to “respond. These are things that people say that don’t provide what you ask for: “That’s a good question,” or “I’m glad you asked that.” Sometimes, these can provide you with useful information. We often hear the nonanswer statement, “I knew you were going to ask me that.”

I bridge this into PR relatively easily with the most common one: You ask them what they're getting you coverage-wise or what their work has been like this week, or indeed when something will run, and you receive a statement like "we're working really hard to lock down coverage for you guys." Or, alternatively, "we're working on pitching some really powerful angles." These aren't actually answers to your question. They're not things that happened. They're buying time.

There're a few others that fit only nascently - overly-specific answers - such as when you ask about who an agency is pitching and get a response about "well our network of reporters covers the entire globe," or "going into attack mode," which you barely see.

However, the most powerful one that I've seen the most is the lie of influence. The book actually dedicates an entire chapter to these convincing statements.

Usually from mid-to-high level PR people, there're layers of "I've been doing this 20 years," or "As I was telling X investor, who's also a client," or "when I was having dinner with X famous person" or "when we were running X giant client." It's trying to bring credibility to what they're saying - deceiving you into the belief that they're right.

They can also manifest in experience - as I said - "I've been doing this twenty years, I think I know what I'm doing." If a car crash happens in a ridesharing service because the person driving the car was drunk, the company saying "we take safety as our number one concern" is a convincing statement. "We're working our absolute hardest" is a convincing statement.

In conjunction with real actual proof of what you're doing - or just the honest truth that jack shit has come from it yet - these may actually be truths. But they are oftentimes not. In PR they're usually all you get.


The funny part, on the client side, is how often you see these employeed in documents. A huge, very pretty google document of 'all the coverage we've got' - with bigger fonts and pretty colors - is in and of itself an attempted convincing statement. A media list - literally a list of reporters you could theoretically have reached out to (or may not have) is a convincing answer.

Or perhaps the question "what have you done for us" can be beaten with a straight-up truth that's still a deception (we've pitched 80 reporters, we've written some blogs) - because it's answering "done" as bluntly as possible with physical proof versus actual value. Still deceptive.

And the promise of 'strategy' and 'planning' alone has become part of the lie too - the deception of intelligent planning and 'angles' that can be 'pitched' to reporters.


This book is immensely in-depth about lies. I can't summarize or apply the entire thing in a post.

What my overall point is is that the idea of PR people being liars is endemic of corporate culture itself, but seems to be more and more prevalent in PR because there's so little actual workproduct. You're not trading stocks or building houses or making sausages. They are working with other people's schedules to try and get them to do things or make their client look important. And it's scary to admit that sometimes that's not easy, or simply not possible. Sometimes they work for agencies that have taken on bad products - and they are scared to say to said client (or their bosses) "this sucks and people hate it."

For reporters, this is a hellish series - they are 'lied' to in these combinations in almost every pitch. Every hyperbolic gesture, every suggestion of being 'amazing,' every thing in there that isn't "this is what it does and why it's good" without frosting, is an actual lie. Hell, if you're saying to them that it's better than something else and it isn't objectively, if you don't believe that, that is also a lie.

Here let me underline it. Stretching the truth and hyperbole in pitches is lying.

Furthermore, as the book touches on, sometimes we want to let ourselves off the hook through lies. Sometimes it's easier to lie to ourselves - that we are that 'good' and that our job is that 'intelligent.' That we don't have to learn more because we're just so good. Or, really, that we need to sound professional all the time, that we need to keep a happy face on all the time, because if we said the truth it would make us look bad.

The problem? A lot of our industry already does.