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Lessons in ‘Truthiness’

This is a guest post by Alison Kenney.

Lately fact checkers have been making news, not just editing it. Between journalistic mistakes and plagiaries and politicians’ false claims, it’s been a busy season for editorial staff and professional fact checking organizations.

So what can we learn from the cries of “foul” in the name of truthiness?

First of all, did you know that fact-checking is controversial? As Andrew Beaujon writes for Poynter Online, conservative critics call news organizations’ fact-checking efforts a cover for expressing their liberal biases. And Neil Newhouse, who heads the Romney campaign, was quoted as saying, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

It’s hard to resist the chance to spread your message, (even if you know it’s false). As this article in The Week points out, “After George H.W. Bush tarred Walter Mondale’s campaign with a damaging but made-up quote in a 1984 debate, Bush’s press secretary was blunt: “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it”; when newspapers point out the lies, “So what?” he said. “Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000, or 20,000.”

However, social media is changing the notion that corrections won’t be seen and heard by many. As Gerard Bush writes in this Huffington Post article, social media channels lit up with comments poking at the truth and intent behind recent political statements. And, as Matthew Ingram points out on GigaOM, while social media channels may be good for spreading rumors, they’ve also become reliable spots for crowd-sourced fact checking.

There’s fact-checking and then there’s interpreting. In her interview with Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Soledad O’Brien challenges the notion that President Obama led an “apology tour.” O’Brien points to transcripts of Obama’s foreign speeches and King acknowledges at the end of the interview that Obama’s actions were interpreted as apologizing for past foreign policies despite his never actually apologizing.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Speakers may take more risks with their statements in audio and video speeches than they would in written editorials. Not only is the format looser and faster, but what is said is not the only thing the audience is capturing. How the speech is delivered and how the speaker looks while speaking also contribute to the audience’s impression.

Consider your spokesperson. Many viewers agree that Bill Clinton hit a home run with his speech at the DNC, but consider if the same talk had been given by someone else. Who else could have delivered a point-by-policy-point rebuttal speech, talked for half an hour longer than planned and sounded credible and authoritative throughout?

It’s important to back up your statements, especially if you’re introducing a new concept. Just take a look at some of the most commonly used phrases in press releases: “industry leading,” “unique,” “innovative,” and even “new.” They’re so common and so widely used that we may not stop to think about whether they are legitimate.

Your story is bigger than you are. So you’ve presented your story and checked it for accuracy, but have you thought about what’s not in your story? Chances are your audience will. Skepticism reigns and audiences crave context. Alternative views allow them to see your message within the bigger picture.

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.


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