What #AlternativeFacts Means for PR Pros


"Flack" is an ugly word to those of us in the public relations discipline, and it seems that for a while—thanks to the principled work of those in modern PR—it had been riding an ebb tide out to sea. That tide may now be coming in again; The Washington PostPolitico and Wired, among others, used the term in reference to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in effect the nation's PR-pro-in-chief, in his first week on the job.

Most at issue is Spicer's Jan. 21 press briefing in which, by way of various untruths, he scolded the media for its accurate coverage of the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump's inauguration. "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," was the main whopper, a statement contradicted by aerial photos, Metro ridership numbers, Nielsen ratings and all other available information. Senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared on "Meet the Press" the following morning to defend Spicer, saying he gave "alternative facts," a phrase that quickly resounded through pop culture. Even @MerriamWebster was quick to take to Twitter to clarify things from a dictionary perspective:

Spicer and Conway are both basically in the game of PR: messaging, mitigating crises and managing media relations for their No. 1 client, Trump. It seems clear that they are doing exactly what their client is telling them to do, so in that sense their performance meets expectations. But how does their performance reflect on PR as an industry? Spicer taking the lectern sharing "alternative facts" is a memorable and powerful image, and one that people might readily remember the next time they watch you stand up before the press on behalf of your CEO. Are you to be trusted, or are you simply peddling falsehoods you've been ordered to utter?

In this light, it's going to be more important than ever for PR pros to counter negative stereotypes about their profession, setting the record straight with proven, reliable data when possible and pushing back against higher-ups when necessary. It has yet to be seen whether being combative and magisterial with the media will work for the new administration, but it's a good bet that thorough media fact-checking is going to be more in vogue than ever before; use that to your advantage by letting them find things that bear out your statements, and keep working toward the day when "flack" is banished to the realms of memory.

In the meantime, we'll always have the Twitter snark:

Follow Ian James Wright on Twitter: @ianwright0101