Full Disclosure: Integrity in Writing

Integrity in Writing Image

Content can be great. Context will always make it better.

I've been in this game a while and one of the biggest questions that businesses, politicians, entertainers, and athletes have is this: Why won't the public believe me?

And the answer is simple: because we, as an industry, haven't done a very good job of being believable.

This challenge is only growing larger in the Internet Age. Because anyone can publish anywhere -- and because so much information is misleading or outright wrong -- people have no idea who or what to believe. The old adage states, once bitten, twice shy... but what happens when you've been bitten multiple times?

That's where businesses fail. In a rush to try to get "our story" out, business writers often neglect two things: what's the real story and what does out mean? A friend of mine in the newspaper industry (one in which I grew up), laments the fact that businesses/events/groups approach him looking for "positive coverage." That's not an expectation one can have. And if you want to ensure positive coverage, buy an ad -- because, essentially, that's most often what people mean by that request.

If your request can be framed as, "I'd like you to write an article about my company/event because I want to promote something, but don't want to pay for an ad," then it's time to look at other options.

That's where disclosure can be your best friend. Decades of "spin doctoring" and "wordsmithing" have left the general public completely mistrustful of most writing. At best, you'll be dismissed; at worst, out come the conspiracy theories.

As an aside, while I personally abhor both terms, I respect that there are two meanings to the word "wordsmith." Some use it as a positive -- forging strong content out of the molten ore of the English language. In my experience, it's generally been used by people coming up and saying, "Uhm. We've got this potentially negative story here. Can you wordsmith it to make it sound better?

That said, telling part of a story or highlighting only the good is fine, as long as you provide context. You wouldn't expect a theatre company to go out and say, "Yeah, this play is not very good, but the lead actress is amazing." (Though, I would argue that honesty would be refreshing). So when you read a playbill loaded with hyperbolic terms and statements, you're naturally skeptical.

The same goes for businesses. If you exclusively highlight the positive, you increase the potential impression of negative in your readers.

So when creating content: whether it's an ad or a response to a Tweet, consider the following:

Am I telling the truth, or just parts of it?

In my career, I've worked with a couple of places that were a little more fast and loose with the truth. One would only publish positive medical stories as it had a primary business as a pharmaceutical consulting agency; another would demand euphemisms to describe potential effects of unproven nutritional products.

See, that's where the wordsmithing-hate comes from! A good writer can make anything sound convincing, but without the truth the end result can be disappointing to the customer.

Am I pretending to be something I'm not?

People are smart and they're intuitive. If something walks like a duck and talks like a duck... There's nothing wrong with a sponsor talking about an event they're involved with, as long as that's made clear. There's nothing wrong with a person making a comment about a company, a review, or a product, as long as they're not hiding ulterior motives.

We see this on the Internet all the time. Anti-conservative stories coming for sites that don't disclose their left leanings; anti-left-wing stories coming from right-wing sites that pose as news sites; medical "breakthroughs" and "warnings" by sites run natural-health product retailers; friends standing up for friends but posing as anonymous 'customers.' With a little digging the reader can usually find out the context, but by acting this way you're only serving to a) deceive the reader, or b) offend the reader once they find out the true context of the comment.

Is it worth it?

I write a lot of theatre/entertainment content. My partner has done some theatre work. My line is very clear that I will not review, preview, or comment on anything she's in.

It's not because I don't trust my ability to remain fair and objective. I've worked very hard over the years to do just that and I'm proud of my work. However, it's a no-win situation. After all, if the play is great and I write a positive review, then there will be those who say, "Well, of course he wrote a good review." That's not fair to me or the production.

So the simple thing is to stay away from anything that would have the hint of conflict of interest. I know I would be 100 per cent honest in what I write, but perception is very much reality. And it's not worth sullying your reputation for a perception of impropriety.

How do you fix it? Provide Context

I'm not opposed to advertorials and I think they can have a place as a revenue-generator for newspapers/radio/TV/Web and as a way for businesses to get "their" message out. However, if you're publishing and advertorial, be clear about what that content is. Don't try to pretend it's editorial content, but rather be up front and honest and say that it's paid promotional material.

If you're making a comment, disclose your affiliation. Don't hide behind the general public's lack of intimate knowledge about your relationship to a person, product, or business. Be up front and say, "I work for X" or "I'm a long-term friend of..."

Honesty Works

Your content doesn't suffer from context. What it allows the user to do is frame the content in a manner that affords them the respect of understanding how it's developed. And your up-front honesty won't devalue the content that you provide, but rather will augment it.

If you're willing to disclose your affiliations and predispositions, the reader will be more willing to take your commentary at face value. At least they "know" -- and the absolutely skepticism can be downgraded to a contextualized skepticism. That means a lot.

It Starts at the Top

I'm lucky. I can make these statements because I have the luxury of time and space: time, in that I've been in the business for a while and have worked through a lot of experiences; and space in that where I work believes in openness and honesty.

I'm able to say no to things that I don't feel are right. I recently quit a publication because of exactly this reason -- non-disclosure of a working relationship amongst editorial colleagues who would write glowingly about each other's works, to the exclusion of others. That, and the general content issues I had, with the publication brought me to the point where I didn't want my name affiliated with it.

But I have that luxury. And I realize how lucky I am because I've been in situations that weren't so great. Many companies hire junior communicators and ask them to create content that's not completely honest. They can't say no because they need to eat.

It's easy to be high-and-mighty and tell people what they should do and what moral stance they should take when you're comfortable. But for people struggling to make ends meet, some with families to support, it's not so black and white.

And that's why it has to start at the top. If your senior staff encourages honesty and practices what it preaches, it sets up an environment where staff can question messaging. Maybe what is being said isn't bad, but how it's being delivered could be improved. If you have that type of communication, your efforts as a whole will be improved.

Full disclosure? It works. And if you want your customers to trust you, employing integrity in writing can help them contextualize -- and increase trust in -- your content.

Questions Answered

What is spin doctoring?

Can I trust content?

What's an advertorial?



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