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Lying to the Public Is Never a Good Thing

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lying-resume-ethicsBy Michael Sale
Law Enforcement Education Coordinator (Canada) at American Military University

The recent news that Brian Williams is returning to television and hoping to restore his damaged reputation, got me thinking again about the consequences of lying. Having spent many years in police public affairs, I learned very quickly that lying is never a good thing and anyone who thinks that lying, or otherwise deceiving the public, is a good choice, at any time, is playing with fire.

I began my career as a public information officer in an era when many police leaders believed that a good media relations policy was “no media relations policy.” That old point of view changed significantly over several decades as dedicated media specialists were appointed to effectively manage police news and communications programming.

A significant amount of effort was spent on the development of media training programs for frontline police officers, in addition to those holding senior and command positions. It wasn’t long before lists of DOs and D’ONTs were being circulated to help officers prepare for encountering reporters covering police news stories. I obtained one of these lists from the COPCOM conference held in Vancouver, BC, in 2012; the first don’t is “never lie or mislead.”

[Related: Crisis Can Happen Anywhere: Prepare to Work with the Media]

In my collection, I found another list of tips from a prominent Canadian public relations firm which includes a DO that encourages practitioners to always tell the truth. I find it amusing that police officers, or anyone else for that matter, would be instructed to tell the truth when speaking to the news media, especially when they are working in a profession that seeks to uphold truth and the rule of law.

To repeat: never lie to the news media. Never. Regardless of your purpose, it will raise questions about your honesty and integrity that could cripple your trustworthiness for all time and ruin your potential for maintaining or assuming positions that require high degrees of professional and public confidence.

The Professional Consequences of Lying

I once lied to the news media by accident. After a gun-fight between rival street gangs, one man was killed on the street and a second was removed to hospital, in serious condition. Later that day, I hastily published an update on the investigation, after consulting with the lead investigator.

I misunderstood the information and announced, in my news release, that the second man had died in hospital. This caused the detective’s telephone to light up with anxious inquiries from more than 20 news outlets and he had to scramble to publish a correction. I was out of touch by this time and he was left managing and correcting the damage I had caused.

I learned of this faux pas the following day, by which time all seemed to have been corrected. More than a year later, however, I was coordinating a media panel at our police academy when one guest speaker, a radio news reporter, recounted the circumstances of the false story I had published about the man dying in hospital.

He wasn’t aware that I was the author of that error, but I became instantly aware of the emotional consequences of what I had done. Many reporters had believed that the police had deliberately published a false report of the man’s death as a strategy meant to keep the original gangsters from going to the hospital to finish him off.

Regardless of the purpose or explanation, the news media hate to be lied to and, perhaps more importantly, they hate to be manipulated as they suspected we were trying to do when we announced the wounded man had died.

[Related: Lying at Work: Should You Do It?]

Tap the Power of the Truth

As Shakespeare, insisted, “the truth will out.” Be factual. Be Honest. Maintain high standards and learn to manage the news when it’s bad. A good reputation takes a lot of work to earn. A simple lie can destroy it in an instant and recovery may never be possible.

About the Author: Michael Sale served 30 years with the (Metropolitan) Toronto Police eventually rising to the rank of inspector in charge of corporate communications.  His active membership in the FBI National Academy Associates eventually led to his current role as Canadian representative for American Military University, a member of the FBINAA academic alliance.

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