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Communicating To The Truth Instinct

On November 17, 2015 the Department of Defense issued an update to its Joint Publication 3-61, Public Affairs, the second update since its original issuance in 2005.

(Unlike the civil service, which operates without a shared set of standards for public affairs, the military has developed clear and concise guidance about how this vital function is supposed to work.)

In reading the publication, my first reaction was appreciation. This is a very sophisticated document. For example, early on we are reminded to tell only the truth:

“PA [public affairs] personnel will release only accurate, fact-based information….Denying unfavorable information or failing to acknowledge it can lead to media speculation, the perception of cover-up, and degradation of public trust….Once an individual or unit loses the public perception of integrity, it is nearly impossible to recover.”

Of course, my second reaction was dismay. If the thinking is so good, how can the reality be so disappointing so often?

I believe the answer lies, as usual, in the disconnect between ideals as they are expressed on paper, and reality as it is lived in the organization.

The former can be reduced to logic, at least in theory.

The latter is far more messy.

We still don’t understand exactly how organizations work, but we do know that they represent a dynamic interplay between such things as self-expression, cultural norms, and (yes) the raw display of power.

The fact of the matter is, even the doctrine that appears in a guidebook is little more than a social construction. In our country, official communication is supposed to represent accountability. Elsewhere, the situation may be just the opposite, as censorship and manipulation are explicitly endorsed.

What we write and what we do. All of it is socially determined, and the actions we undertake ultimately create a feedback loop that influence the next iteration of the guidance.

I am reminded of a law professor’s rejoinder to a student who critiqued his wearing of a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt to class as inappropriate.

“Like the humans who make it, Law (sic) is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school.”

Here is one thing I do know for sure. It is this that keeps me grounded, both as a person and as a communicator: The truth-seeking instinct is basic to human existence.

For ideas about communication come and go. Culturally they differ, geographically they differ, historically they differ and they even differ based on the current mad dash for technique. For more than fifty years, branding has had its “moment”; the past decade or so has witnessed the exponential rise of social media. Who knows what the trend of tomorrow will be, who will use it, and how that “idea virus” will spread?

But we still read the classics. We cannot put them down. For there is something in human nature that seeks incontrovertible truth. It is a basic to our biology – truth means knowing threat from opportunity. On a spiritual level, it is that moment when we connect our frail selves to the Divine.

And the opposite holds as well. When we try to deceive our audiences, even if it’s just a little bit, they know it. And in today’s lightning-quick Information Age, they jump away online to a better source of information.

So you really don’t need a guidebook to tell you what to do.

Just picture in your mind a homing pigeon.

Picture it relentlessly searching for its home.

Picture your audience doing the same thing with the information you give them.

Know that they have a reliable radar, to filter out truth from falsehood.


All opinions my own. Photo of homing pigeon by Andreas Tepte via Wikipedia (Creative Commons).


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