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To tell the truth

January 22, 2014
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Earlier in my career, when I worked in the field of public relations, I learned two pearls of wisdom that I never forgot. Together, they make the best two-sentence treatise on reputation-building, problem-avoidance, and crisis-management that I’ve ever heard. I’m sharing them now because I can’t get over the difference – in gut level response – that I as a reporter feel when they are used versus when they are ignored.

How do you define “good PR”? Many believe that “good PR” is all about looking good and being right – always sharing only the positives, while hiding or keeping the lid on any negatives. This is what many people believe that they are paying a PR agency to do – to spin up everything they do into something that looks good.  

But that’s baloney. The stuff of a really great credibility and reputation, individually and organizationally, goes a lot deeper than looks, words, or spin. It goes right to the sincerity, and consistency of your actions. I mean all of your actions, not just the ones highlighted in the press releases.  Hence, the first pearl of PR wisdom:

Good PR is doing good and getting caught.

Whether or not you intend your actions - or those of your organization - to be noticed doesn’t matter. They are noticed in a million ways. And, it’s plain common sense that the best way to build a reputation for doing good is to consistently strive to do it. In the striving, you’ll be caught often enough for a consistent picture - a reputation - to emerge.

But what happens when things inevitably go wrong, when actions appear to be driven by greed, dishonesty, or ulterior motives? What do you do when you see something and wonder, “What were they thinking?” Or worse yet, “What was I thinking?”

First, I’d suggest that these are times when people forgot about pearl #1 and made the mistake of assuming that they could act badly without being caught. Second, I’d suggest that they’re not as smart as they think they are. Reporters and PR people exist because individuals – and organizations – have a propensity for being blind to their own foolishness, yet exceedingly perceptive when it comes to seeing the apparent stupidity, arrogance, or dishonesty of others. Not a one of us can help but think that thinks that we’re a little brighter, a little more honorable, a little more convincing than the next guy.

But we’re not, and that’s the key to understanding the best way to behave when something goes wrong and a possible “crisis” - of credibility, behavior, governance, even life or death – looms.  At times like this, your best hope of avoiding or minimizing a crisis lies in pearl #2:  

Tell the truth, tell it fast, and tell it all.

A decision to honestly share what you would rather conceal – personally or corporately – can be a refreshing expression of your humanity, an acknowledgment that you can see what others see and that you don’t like it either. Those who are brave enough to admit a bad decision or action quickly, instead of sticking to a cover story or ignoring the issue, may just win enough understanding to preserve their credibility, merit a little forgiveness, or get a second chance.

But when it is time for the truth – whether in compliance, politics, organizations, or life – time is not your friend:  Yesterday’s mistake or lapse of judgment can, absent a swift admission or a bit of honest explanation, morph quickly into what appears to be a carefully considered decision that you or your organization will have to defend and live with, or admit, later and even more painfully, to have been wrong all along.

It takes real courage and leadership to consider potential plans, actions, and decisions not just in light of their possible advantages, but also in light of what they’ll say about you and your organization when, inevitably, they come to light.

That is your legacy.