Over the past few weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that three simple words have fallen out of favor.
“I don’t know.”
Whether it’s related to the pandemic, social unrest, or the markets, no one seems to be able to say that facts may suggest one thing and reality suggests another. They make educated guesses, theorize, and in some cases, make outlandish—even dangerous--predictions.
They can’t simply say: “That’s a great question, but I don’t have an answer for you today. I just don’t know.”
In media circles this makes sense. Heaven forbid a guest or the interviewer is caught off-guard and offers up a less-than-salient response to a question. And with a dearth of science reporters in the media, covering something like a global pandemic is bound to create problems.
But it’s different in public relations/communications. Being transparent about what you don’t know isn’t just an honorable trait, it’s mandatory.
It’s called being professional. Or, more importantly, being human.
We’ve been asked hundreds of times what we think about one program or another or what we think will resonate with a desired audience. When we weren’t certain, we asked for some time to conduct research, collect facts, and report back. Several quick phone calls to pros we trust, a soft audit of a dozen sources or so, or maybe a coffee with a trusted advisor… NOT ONCE was this scenario met with scorn or derision.
Why? Because while we may be respected in our field, we simply don’t know everything. Experience is helpful in creating plans and strategies, but something that worked 2-3 years ago, might not be quite as effective today. Things change; we have to be every bit as agile as the world we operate in.
Christopher Robichaud, senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School recently told the Harvard Gazette: “Most of us are, at best, experts in a tiny, tiny area. But we don’t navigate the world as if that were true. We navigate the world as if we’re experts about a whole bunch of things that we’re not… A little intellectual humility can go a long way.”
Public relations practitioners are infamous for creating smoke or fostering spin. We sometime have to magnify a small angle of a story to make it resonate. Smoke is another story. But coming off as a know-it-all is the kiss of death. If you can’t be honest, you shouldn’t be practicing PR.
This isn’t a call to arms or a treatise on ethics or moral dilemmas in the world in which we work. That’s not the point. It’s simply a great time to step back and examine our practices.
That much I know.