Every once in awhile I’m reminded of how PR practitioners can wield a bully pulpit and a recent experience reminded me of why diligence (and sometimes lawyers) are your friends when you’re getting ready to make claims on behalf of your company or client. 

If you’re like me, it is impossible to not pay attention to the environmental crisis du jour – the headlines are like freeway rubbernecking; too horrific to take your eyes off and every day there is a new section of the sky falling. A week or so ago, a group of scientists released a study about drastically declining honeybee populations and a link to cell phones – the hypotheses in short; cell signals are disorienting bees and once they  leave a hive they are unable to find their way back.

A couple of the articles I clicked through contained a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that served to sensationalize the coverage AND sufficiently concern me, I might add. The statement goes something like this; if bees go, man goes about four years after from lack of food, or no bees, no pollination of crops, no man. Not that I knew the man personally, be Einstein was reportedly fairly intelligent and therefore probably worth listening to on occasion So, like any good American male, I wanted to sufficiently demonstrate my capacity to memorize and recite the contents of the front page of the paper, which included the aforementioned quote from Mr. Einstein.

Imagine the horror I felt when someone (someone, whom I had a few days prior sagely informed of Mr. Einstein’s perspective on the current state of affairs) sent me this link essentially suggesting that there was no known record of Einstein ever saying any such thing and providing background only dating to 1994.  How could this be?  There were literally hundreds of Web sites and at least three or four unique articles using the quotation.

It is in these sorts of scenarios that I am reminded of how quickly information can be introduced and disseminated and how long it can continue to circulate within certain circles.  Interestingly, the author astutely points out that people sometimes attribute thoughts to influential parties because people are more apt to believe or follow those thoughts; essentially opening a page of the tactical PR practitioner’s handbook.

In fact, the whole experience reinforced my belief that PR is a very powerful and influential discipline.  If I’m a professional communicator for a beekeeper, a quote like this one (assuming it is legitimate) would be an excellent reference point in building an argument for the beekeeper’s perspective. I would help it find its way into all sorts of communications vehicles, from pamphlets on up to the CEOs speech.

But what happens if I’ve used this information that appears in numerous locations and seems completely legitimate, but in fact, when placed under the microscope, is actually fraudulent?  Now, to simply fabricate and attribute a false statement is patently unethical and if this is the nature of the quote’s origin, its author needs to resign from his or her profession; however, I’m confident this is a rare occurrence in our industry and is a conversation for another day.  That said, in the eyes of the public, it rarely matters whether you intentionally or accidently mislead your constituents, stakeholders, etc. – the damage will be done. Reputation is hard to build and even harder to get back if you lose trust.

PR and legal functions within an organization can often find themselves at odds with one another, but, it is at times like this that I am reminded why you must seek out primary sources of information. While it is often an exercise that produces no significant difference in the outcome, like in college term papers, proper due diligence in the review process that most established companies have in place exists to prevent the possibility that false or inaccurate information finds its way into company collateral. Inevitably, this exercise protects the company’s reputation and your own.

— Kevin Sangsland