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Fighting Alternative Facts with Facts

A call for higher education leaders to advocate for the truth.

There was a lot of water cooler and social media banter after Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts” to our nation’s vocabulary. The overwhelming sentiment was that it is absurd to say there are multiple facts or data points to describe a single situation. After all, facts are facts.

But not everyone was giggling at the concept. I’ve been asked by higher education leaders to share alternative facts and minimize situations that deserve truth. And I know from talking to my peers that they have been asked to do the same.

Sometimes it has been over the use of a quote. Someone says they were misquoted but with further discussion, it becomes apparent that those words came out of their mouth. We quickly discern the quote was accurate and the speaker’s real issue is with the context in which that quote was placed.

Other times, it is over the use of data, facts, statements or resolutions. Maybe the campus isn’t comfortable with their Clery Act reporting numbers and wants an amended data set to be shared. Or the number of students participating in a campus protest or walkout feels inflated by the student paper and someone insists on a correction. Or perhaps the year-to-date admissions numbers or endowment returns don’t quite reflect the effort underway in those areas and senior leaders are advocating for a response of “no comment” or an amended dataset. Or a leader’s own words, taken from statements or resolutions, are being used against them.

It is my job to allow the facts to stand on their own and provide context for them rather than pushing alternative facts. It is the role of media relations professionals to advocate for telling the truth. It is in the long-term best interest of the institution, the campus community and the senior leadership to be truthful, even if it is painful short-term. That’s not to say it is easy or that we won’t have to manage emotions and expectations for our leaders. And we know there is the potential to become the scapegoat when we are just doing our jobs.

I can empathize with the position White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was put in last week. His boss wasn’t pleased with how the media was covering a topic of personal importance and he insisted that his media liaison assert the alternative with the press. After all, if they were seeing the topic “wrong,” then they must be misinterpreting the “facts.” Having said that, it is a media relations professional’s job to remind leaders that “facts” and “perception” are not interchangeable terms. “Facts” also don’t rely on emotion or opinions for framing.

And it is our job to be the bearer of bad news by discussing the consequences of focusing on emotions and opinions rather than facts. I’ve been put in difficult situations where a senior leader is angry and places my colleagues and me in the crosshairs of their anger and sometimes rage. While self-preservation may indicate it is easiest to give in to their request to set the record straight by using alternative facts, it is our job and professional obligation to push back and advocate for truth.

I don’t support much of Spicer’s approach to his job since inauguration day or the way in which his job performance has cast a negative light on our profession. Communicators can only be successful in our jobs if we build relationships with reporters, editors and producers. We are guided by a professional code of ethics. Just last week, our professional association backstopped our obligation to uphold this code through a statement denouncing the concept of alternative facts and prioritizing truth.

Media relations professionals aren’t focused on building friendships with reporters, but we are most effective at our jobs if we can trust the media to be balanced and fair (which is not the same thing as telling the story how we want it to be told) and they can trust us to share indisputable facts and data.

So, the next time you ask us to pursue a correction to a piece that is accurate or want to adjust a data set or “spin” a situation, know that it is our job to say “no.”

After all, seasoned media relations professionals agree that “lying to the media isn’t acceptable.”

Note: This piece first appeared on the Call to Action Blog, hosted by Inside Higher Ed.