Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You only get one chance to be honest

What do Mike Daisey and Komen have in common? They both blew their one chance to be honest. Komen made a politically-motivated move and then claimed it had nothing to do with politics. Daisey presented eye-witness testimony to things that he didn't personally witness.

There's no doubt that both Daisey and Komen executives feel that these slips have been overblown, that the baby is being thrown out with the bath water. But here's the thing: in both cases, people assumed that they were telling the truth. The general public gave Daisey and Komen the benefit of the doubt. In a world where it is impossible to verify everything that you hear, this is essential. You are required to extend your trust to certain people, because the only alternative is near-universal skepticism.

This is a benefit we extend to anyone like Daisey and Komen who appear on the surface to be well-intentioned, but it comes with a cost: when you opt for "truthiness" rather than truth, the backlash can be severe. When you lie to us, or even when you engage in half-truths and exaggerations, you make us question what else we should be skeptical about. When you show that you have a casual relationship with the truth, we learn that we can't necessarily trust you. We're not going to fact-check everything you say, and you've already proven that we can't take you at your word, so the only viable option remaining to us is skepticism. In the process some babies will end up out with the bath water, but that's not our fault, it's yours.

In corporate communications and in life, you only have one chance to be honest. Don't blow it.