Many people feel uncertain and uneasy about 2017, in part because of growing and relentless assaults on truth, reason and decency that have fractured longstanding foundations of public communications and policymaking.
This disorientation about who and what to believe is understandable, given the wrenching and largely vacuous presidential campaign of 2016. Consider that the three U.S. broadcast networks provided only 36 minutes of independent issues reporting on the 2016 campaign, down from nearly four hours in 2008. Or that during the heart of the campaign from August to November, there were more shares, reactions and comments on fake news on Facebook than on real news stories.
In this fog of fakery, there are some things that are certain, primarily that the world is full of skilled propagandists on all sides of political, economic and social debates who manipulate facts and public opinion for their own purposes. This has always been true in American politics and business. From Hearst to Hoover to Hannity to tobacco companies, history is rife with fake news, government deceptions, smear campaigns and corporate misdirection.
What is different today, however, is that digital and social media provide precise audience targeting, speed and anonymity that make it easier to reach people with purposefully misleading or biased information. We also know that this misinformation is persuasive to people and can cloud their judgment in the voting booth, the boardroom and legislative chambers. In the worst cases, it has led to violence.
That's why The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications has launched a program to recognize integrity and excellence in communications. Leaders from public relations, journalism, and other communications fields whose work meets the highest professional and ethical standards will be honored at an annual event, the first of which will be Feb. 22 in New York City.
The Page Center is based at the College of Communication at Penn State University and was created and endowed by Larry Foster, who was head of PR at Johnson & Johnson for 33 years. Foster advocated that the highest ethical standards must apply to anyone engaged in public communications. Bill Nielsen, another J&J PR leader and the chair of the Page Center Advisory Board, says that those of us who communicate with the public ought to consider it a privilege.
Many do. Their work is focused on serving the public interest first. In the corporate world, for example, it is often the PR professional who advocates for a culture built on integrity, full disclosure, and meaningful engagement with the public. As PR legend Arthur W. Page said, "The fundamental way of getting public approval is to deserve it."
So how else does integrity in public communications manifest itself? After 35 years in journalism and communications, here are a few of my thoughts:
This behavior must be pursued relentlessly to break through the maw of misinformation we now confront. If not, we will certainly continue to destroy public trust in our professions and institutions, and sacrifice our ability to work together on the challenges ahead.
Gary Sheffer is the former CCO of GE and chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society. He is a member of the advisory board for the Arthur W. Page Center.