Fresh back from a couple of communication conferences in Cape Town, I wanted to share a presentation I sat in on at IMPACT’s sister agency, Reputation Matters’ 2015 Reputation Conference – ‘Lying to Protect the Organisation: An Occupational Hazard?’

Professor Ronél Rensburg, Head of the Communication Division at the University of Pretoria, presented the findings of her research with senior South African communication professionals. The topic started much debate and soul searching as we all asked ourselves – when, as professional communicators, is it OK to lie?

To put this conversation into perspective, the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index assigned South Africa a score of 44 and a ranking of 67th (equal with Kuwait) out of 174 countries. Australia scored 80 and ranks 11th. No country got a perfect score and more than two-thirds scored below 50, on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

In a country where corruption is a constant battle (during my stay news broke of a $10 million bribe allegedly paid by South Africa to host the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2010), the results were not surprising – lying and dishonesty apparently extend to the corporate communication sector in South Africa.

Rensburg’s study found that top South African communication executives lie not just to the news media they regularly communicate with, but also to their subordinates and superiors. An astounding 85 per cent of participants had lied in the course of doing their jobs and 80 per cent said they would do it again.

“Of course I lie ­– I lie because my CEO expects it,” one anonymous executive told the report’s author.

“I lie to the media and my staff. I even have to lie to the CEO because I know more than he does,” another said.

We all know that corporate lying has a disastrous effect on an organisation’s reputation – just look at Volkswagen and its emission standards scandal – the company’s share price dropped 23 per cent and the company’s global sales last month fell 3.5 per cent from a year earlier.

When we broke from the conference for lunch there was much debate around when is it ok to lie – I proffered we lie so we don’t hurt people’s feelings, while my colleague was wondering if knowing something about the company you work for but intentionally not divulging it when questioned, was that lying?

We as communicators must insist our clients, and corporations we work for, take the moral high ground and provide open and honest dialogue at all times. Sure there will be times when the information we hold is commercial in confidence, and as Rensburg suggested, that perhaps it’s not transparency we seek, but ‘disclosure of information’.

“It all comes down to ethical communication management – communication and PR professionals have the power to build or break down an organisation’s reputation. By being truthful and not hiding any facts, especially during a crisis, enterprises can build a solid reputation with all stakeholders,” says Rensburg.

She goes on to say that it is communication professionals’ responsibility to inform their organisations and CEO’s to avoid hiding, varnishing or embroidering facts, particularly where the media is concerned.

Rensburg’s three universal rules when dealing with the media:

  • do not lie;
  • do not hide facts and;
  • do not say “no comment”

I would also say this is true when dealing with online communities.  As part of their reputation management, we tell all our clients not to post anything on their social channels that do not reflect their core values.