In 1979, shortly after I joined Burson-Marsteller, the company was bought by one of the leading ad agencies, Young & Rubicam. 1980 was a presidential election year and also the year we held our first joint annual meeting. At that gathering, Alex Kroll, Head of Y&R USA, made an observation, a prediction and a plea that I clearly have remembered over the years. He noted a growing trend in political advertising toward negative comments about the opposition vs. positive policy and initiative statements. His prediction was that if this trend continued, quality candidates would be driven from seeking public office and the public would begin to lose faith in the institution of our government. And his plea? As advertising and communication professionals, we had to stand strong and be the voice that would steady the course and turn the process away from this negative spiral.
We now jump ahead to last Friday and a gathering of communication professionals brought together by the PR Council for a panel discussion titled “Communicating in a Trump World: What the New Administration Means for Our Industry.” Toward the start of that discussion, Don Baer, Worldwide Chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, laid out that one of the factors bringing Trump to office is a general distrust of institutions, both government and corporate. High on the list of complaints about these entities – and something underscored during the Trump campaign – is their lack of trustworthiness and transparency.
Given the actions of the administration and elected officials now in office, the “mandate” to restore trust and transparency is not being addressed. As communicators, what is our responsibility in all of this? Our CEO, Anne Green, stated very well the ethical responsibilities we have, which are supported by the principles of each of our major industry organizations.
We have the imperative to speak up, ask our clients to take the high road and encourage them to be open, transparent and truthful.
We speak a great deal in this industry about having a seat at the table. That seat and the voice that goes with it have never been more important. What happens next matters for the long term. Just as Alex Kroll’s prediction in 1980 came to be, if we in the communications profession go along with non-truths, stretched truths or “alternative facts,” we will be party to the trend of diminished trustworthiness and transparency. Never has the long-term view counted more heavily.
Surely for politicians and companies alike, there is much to weigh in deciding how to speak and act. There are perceived consequences of a potential wrong move. But if the lack of trust and an absence of transparency among our institutions was such a factor in this election, then restoring that trust and transparency needs to be front and center in all of our actions. Communications professionals are often a last line of defense – given that we are called upon to get the word out. We must carefully weigh that enormous responsibility in relation to all we disseminate.
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