Let’s begin with definitions. What precisely is a fact? “A thing which is indisputably the case…” “…something known to exist or to have happened…” “…something that actually exists; reality; truth….” “…something said to be true or supposed to have happened…”
Business Dictionary has the best one, so appropriate to this era: “…Event, item of information, or state of affairs existing, observed, or known to have happened, and which is confirmed or validated to such an extent that it is considered ‘reality’…”
Notice all the important words:
If a fact is all of the above – or at least it used to be – how is it possible that there could be such a thing as “alternative facts”?
If we go back to the dictionary, we can begin by trying to understand what the term alternative means. “…available as another possibility…”; “…of two things, propositions or courses, mutually exclusive so that if one is chosen the other is rejected…”
The Cambridge Dictionary has it nailed: “…An alternative plan or method is one that you can use if you do not want to use another one…” and further “… alternative things are considered to be unusual and often have a small but enthusiastic group of people who support them…”
Isn’t that interesting? So, if there is such a thing as alternative facts, then by definition they have the following characteristics:
- They do not represent the truth.
- They do not represent observed reality.
- They are disputable.
- They are supported by an enthusiastic group of people who don’t seem to notice the lack of truth, or observed reality.
In the face of recent developments regarding the changing nature of the truth (if that is even existentially possible), professional organization representing communication industries such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) have had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use this new spin on spin to educate not only their own members about the pitfalls of such unethical communication strategies, but also to educate the public about how professional, ethical communicators can help guard against this new and unwelcome approach to creating reality.
PRSA’s statement on “alternative facts” is weak to say the least. “… Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals… PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.” Actually, we all spin, whether we’re in PR or not – but that’s another blog post.
CPRS couldn’t have done less. Their blogged response to the alternative facts debacle was to support the PRSA statement and to reiterate their own code of ethics tenets related to honest and transparent communication.  As a long-time, accredited member of CPRS and its College of Fellows, I was seriously disappointed.
There wasn’t even the slightest mention of the absurdity of the term “alternative facts.” There was no analysis, no opportunity taken to try to communicate what we really mean.
CPRS, rather than trying to figure out precisely what this new term means blathers on about what the code of ethics says, a code that is unknown to anyone who isn’t a member of the organization. But what is a code of ethics? A piece of paper that looks nice and can be trotted out whenever such matters stick in the public mind? Or is it a working document? A document that has at its core a set of values that need further explication for every situation?
Actions speak louder than words? What action did CPRS take? They gave us words.