Truth of False

In a recent meeting with an environmental NGO, I was asked how far I might recommend the organization go to create news, i.e.., how outrageous or incendiary should their statements or actions be in order to garner headlines? I admitted that sometimes it’s necessary to create a little theatre to break through the clutter. But I added that it’s never OK to float a falsehood — or is it?

In a recent audio segment titled “The Truth of False” that aired on NPR’s “On the Media,” co-host Bob Garfield interviewed Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam about his piece on some new psychological studies that show that:

“Good myths die hard…attempts to set the record straight may in fact be perpetuating falsehoods.”

He cites a CDC announcement in which the Center issued a “true or false” report on the flu. It turns out that older people more readily remembered the falsehoods, and ultimately believed them to be true. So what does this mean for us PR types as we advise our clients on how best to rectify misinformation or ensure that what we say is received the way in which we intended it?

As we enter what promises to be a very nasty, media manipulative Presidential campaign, we should be vigilant in recognizing the purposeful disinformation emanating from nefarious PR types acting to denigrate an adversary or advance a political end. Think “swift boat,” “Osama as radical Islamist,” “WMDs exist in Iraq,” or “the surge is working.”

The very act of floating a piece of information, picked up by the news echo chamber, almost validates the information whether it’s true or not, and often in spite of attempts to correct the falsehood. One of the Post reporter’s final comments to Garfield offered this:

“One thing that I should mention, Bob, is that when you’re trying to deny a falsehood, perhaps the most effective way of doing that is by not mentioning the original falsehood at all. In other words, if someone said that Bob Garfield is for child prostitution, the right response is not, ‘Bob Garfield is not for child prostitution,’ but rather say ‘Bob Garfield is an outstanding journalist who believes…'”

Sounds like familiar PR advice: don’t repeat the negative.

I can vouch for Bob Garfield as an upstanding citizen who, by the way, has embarked on a Jarvis-like rant on his blog today aimed squarely at Comcast. It’s titled: “Comcast Must Die!” Brian, ignore Garfield at your peril. Remember your sleeping repairman’s YouTube turn.

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