“Partial truths, numbers, stories, context, desirability, and morality are just some of the elements used by experienced communicators… to shape reality.”
“Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality” by Hector Macdonald is a fascinating read. It focuses on the concept of truth in its entirety, from competing truths (how two seemingly opposite things can both be true when told from different perspectives), to ultimate truths (is it possible for something to be undeniably true?).
Anyone working in public relations or marketing would find something of interest in here. It is designed to help you consider the ethical frameworks for communicating truthfully.
One of the challenges in PR is taking a message and simplifying it so that it is easily understood by target audiences. To do this we often omit information. Does that reduce the veracity of what we are saying? Macdonald argues that it is neccessary:
“Most of the issues… we deal with are too complex to describe in full; we have to communicate in partial truths because life is too convoluted for us to offer anything more comprehensive.”
Three types of communicators
The book identifies three styles of communication that use the concept of truth in different ways:
- Advocates: people who select competing truths to create a reasonable impression of reality, with the purpose of achieving a goal
- Misinformers: people who innocently share competing truths that distort reality (a common complaint with social media, with people reposting content without checking sources)
- Misleaders: people who deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality that they know is not true (e.g. Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum, which highlighted money going out to the EU but not what came back in return)
Truth in the eye of the beholder
Another theme was that audiences are more receptive to truths that fit their existing worldview (confirmation bias). This extends to the messengers too, who choose facts that they feel will resonate the most with their intended audience.
It explores the notion that misleading truths can be important and justifiable, for example if it impacts on safety and security. Truths are also something that can change over time. This includes if new information becomes available, changing an agreed truth.
Rules for ethical communication
Alongside these themes, Macdonald offers guidance for ethical communication, and asks: “If your audience knew everything you know about your subject, would they think you had portrayed it fairly?”
His three rules for ethical communication are:
- It is factually correct
- It is intended to achieve a constructive outcome that the audience would support
- It will not cause members of the audience to act in a way that harms them
Is it worth reading?
The book is divided into four sections:
- Partial truths (complexity, history, context, numbers and stories)
- Subjective truths (morality, desirability and value)
- Artificial truths (social constructs and the power of naming)
- Unknown truths (predictions and beliefs)
Chapters finish with practical tips to communicate more truthfully and things to look out for that show that truth is being distorted or buried.
The book is written in a highly accessible style, and full of useful examples of messaging from companies, media outlets and individuals. It never feels too dense and regularly invites you to consider your own views on truth. After all, we all have our own truths, based on our own knowledge and experiences.
I would highly recommend it to anyone working in communications.
Photo by Emily Morter via Unsplash