Monday, February 06, 2006

"Truthiness"

As usual, on the commute to work the other morning, I read The New York Times. Suddenly, a leitmotif — a recurrent theme — began to emerge. The theme of the news was ... "truthiness."

Named the "word of the year" for 2005 by the American Dialect Society, "truthiness" was coined by Stephen Colbert, host of the Colbert Report, a satirical news show on Comedy Central. "Truthiness" refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wants to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.

Last Monday's edition of the Times provided ample proof that truthiness has replaced facts as the currency of public discourse.

First, there's the Enron trial. Kenneth Lay will probably claim that he didn't understand the most dubious of the financial arrangements made by Fastow and his associates. I guess he feels it's better to be perceived as incompetent, disengaged and overpaid than admit he made a mistake. Then last Thursday, The New York Times headline summarized the first witness's testimony, an investor relations executive, as "Ex-executive says Enron Fudged Data to Try to Please Wall St."

Then, there’s the recent collapse of Refco, the futures broker. Refco raised $583 million in an IPO and, two months later, announced that a company that owed it $430 million was controlled by its CEO. When it became clear that its financial statements were no longer reliable, Refco went bankrupt.

... And finally, there's the James Frey affair. The author who essentially fabricated his life story in his purported autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was pilloried by Oprah Winfrey, on her live TV show last week.

When did truth become truthiness? Has the tidal wave of celebrity disinformation, corporate scandals and political corruption finally swamped those old-fashioned American values: "honesty," "truth" and "trust"?

People are playing fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to sound credible but, in reality, the most credible position is always the truth. Tell the truth! Take the facts and present them to the advantage of the organization you represent. But don't play with the facts and craft something that's not the truth ... just something you wish were true.

Truthiness. It's not a good thing.

4 Comments:

Blogger Michael Morton said...

Public relations professionals have traditionally been looked at as "spinsters". But I believe we have are now gaining the recognition we deserve through ethical conduct. Truthiness should never be entertained by those in the public relations field. If it is, we will hear the term "spinster" yet again.

Monday, February 06, 2006 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Makovsky said...

Sophisticated ethical leadership generally understands that public relations is ethical advocacy in the public arena. Unfortunately, disinformation/truthiness campaigns have taken hold in some leadership corners. The solution is always ethical conduct.

Yet if we have any hope of making the "general public" understand that top quality practitioners do not engage inappropriately, leadership will have to change its ways. Spinning is fabricating which is why attaching this word to our profession is so disturbing. The right kind of role modeling is the key.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006 3:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its easy to tell PR people to be truthful, but what about the CEOs and other senior staff they report to? If I tell them to tell the truth, I loose my job. Let's let some reality into this debate ... the only way to align corporate conduct with values is to have senior leadership who unfailingly practices what it preaches. And anyone in the corporate world knows that ain't the way most CEOs operate. We PR folks can only do so much ...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006 9:50:00 AM  
Blogger Ken Makovsky said...

Let's hope after the corporate scandals of the past five years and the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley (and FASB/AICPA, the equivalent for private companies) that CEOs are changing. They are all challenged by transparency in an age when most cover-ups are uncovered. Admittedly sometimes, there is a need to investigate the facts before the truth can be told -- so it is delayed. Ultimately, the one who loses his job for telling material lies will be the CEO. He or she should be so advised.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006 10:08:00 AM  

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