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Is it ok to lie to people in your business?

The spin doctor will see you now

Kellyanne Conway gave us a deliciously meme-worthy moment by introducing us to the concept of “alternative facts”.

We are apparently now living in a post-fact world.

Businesses have been operating in this environment for quite some time. The idea of the public relations “protective shell” is something I’ve had, in my previous agency life, to advise clients on. Communication teams prepare corporate messaging to manage reputational risk or reply to potentially damaging situations. This storytelling is designed to maintain trust by spinning your own version of the truth.

Kellyanne doesn’t get credit for alternative facts. Government has been very good at this for decades. I once had the pleasure of an audience with Alastair Campbell, UK Labour party spin doctor and chief advisor to the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was invited to inspire the PR team at the broadcaster where I worked. He was very open about his methods and their effectiveness — including how to slip potentially controversial government decisions past the public by releasing them at times where the media are distracted by other news stories. A technique the Trump administration is already great at. It’s not enough these days to get ahead of the story — you need to control the entire news cycle.

My meeting with Campbell was after the UK had made the decision to invade Iraq on the back of Blair’s “dodgy dossier”. The nation was guided to military action on the back of “facts” of Saddam Hussein’s ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction (which the Chilcot inquiry later stated contained “judgments about Iraq’s capabilities that were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”

Listening to Alastair Campbell speak about methods of public deception angered me — here was an expert of my profession giving his wisdom. I raised my hand and asked “is it your belief that being good at your job involves lying to people?”

Slouching in his chair at the front of the room, his arms behind his head in typical alpha male silverback gorilla fashion, Campbell replied that it wasn’t a lie and that it helped us take action. “But there are no weapons — the government lied to its people” I stated.

He quickly moved on to the next question. Block and bridge being another effective weapon in the arsenal of deception.

Is it ok to lie to people — if you believe you have their best interests at heart?

Businesses are also great at deploying alternative facts. For companies this is about avoiding criticism, to stop losing customers, and to continue to tell a story of growth. This habit starts inside business, with leaders who are afraid to tell the truth. With a management team who frequently hide or spin sensitive information, such as financial data, before communicating to their people — often to “protect” employees from the truth of a situation. The common concern is that information will cause fear or panic amongst the staff. While trying to protect people, leaders in fact create a culture of uncertainty.

A company with a practice of open information sharing is based on trust. No need for alternative facts; tell the truth, give people the skills and tools to respond, and they will flourish. The impact — a business based on trusted relationships inside, building trust relationships outside. Telling the truth isn’t just about fessing up when things go wrong. Employees and customers will enter into valuable relationships with businesses who have a track record of honesty.

Every company wants to build trust with their employees, customers and shareholders. Alternative facts, a slim-line version of the truth, a story that has been signed off by corporate affairs — these are all masks a business wears to protect itself. The only way that trust is built is when we show up to who we really are, and our actions follow our words.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently” — Warren Buffet

Some forward thinking companies have taken this to the extreme by adopting a policy of radical transparency. They believe that their culture will thrive with open information. This takes many forms — champions of corporate transparency Buffer publishes financial information, including salaries, on its website. Tesla open sources its intellectual property, with Elon Musk stating “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” This is not just to increase trust with customers, but to embody an ethos. Their openness reflects the trust within the business, which helps others to identify with the type of company they are. It is congruent with their values and supports the purpose of the business.

An open culture is more resilient. Failure is not a punishable offence because there are clear expectations of when to fail and how to communicate it when it happens. Innovation flourishes when there is trusted collaboration and team work. Volkswagen’s “no failure” culture is reported to stem from leadership that drove the business on fear. The result? A scandal from covering up the environmental performance of vehicles, costing the business billions of dollars for recalls, declining sales, loss of stock value, and a host of class action lawsuits.

We probably haven’t seen the end of the political spin doctor. They are good at driving popular support and managing campaigns. But I certainly don’t see any role for them in government. We have a right to demand the truth (ie — the actual facts) from our elected officials since they work for us.

The same applies to our business leaders. Companies that are authentic with open cultures have no need to present an alternative version of the facts. They show up for who they are because they want to create trusted relationships. Trust is the most sought after commodity in business today — and yet it could be so simple to attain. If only we trusted the people we work with.

Brand strategist, retired music producer, and exec coach for CEOs around the world. Fellow of the RSA. Founding partner of Within People. withinpeople.com