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Public Relations Expert Urges Openness

We live in an information age when it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction. Public relations expert Torie Clarke has some advice for leaders who are tempted to tailor the truth, a process known in the media world as "spin." She says in a recent book called Lipstick on a Pig that openness is the best way to get your message across.

Torie Clarke honed her public relation skills as a spokeswoman for Senator John McCain, then worked for former President Bush's re-election campaign and was chief spokesperson for the Pentagon in the early years of the current administration. Clarke continues her public relations work in private industry and is a commentator on the CNN cable network.

She says in government and business, there is always a temptation to neutralize your critics and shape the truth to come out looking good. She says the effort seldom works and leaves public relations spokesmen and the officials they work for looking foolish.

"When you think about information technologies and you think about the volume and velocity with which information rockets around the world, spin is irrelevant," she explained. "Sometimes, especially in the public sector, I think it is irresponsible. And I think people should just try to put a big spotlight on what they are doing, and the good stuff will shine through, and the bad stuff will get cleaned up that much faster."

As former assistant secretary of defense for public relations, Ms. Clarke has been at the center of historic events. She was responsible for getting out information from the Defense Department after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One attack targeted her own place of work, the Pentagon.

She conceived the innovative program to imbed journalists inside military units for the Iraq invasion, which put reporters, and their readers, viewers and listeners, on the front lines.

Clarke says people are becoming smarter consumers of information and can distinguish substance from rhetoric. She says corporate and government leaders, when faced with negative news, should take the initiative in getting their message out.

"First and foremost, tell your own story, because nobody else is going to," she said. "Or they might and they do not like you and they are a critic of yours and they are not going to do a very good job of it. Two, have a lot of people telling your story."

She says in our media age, a single spokesman is seldom effective.

"And finally, probably most importantly, when you make a mistake, and you will, everybody does, everybody has problems and challenges, when you make a mistake, confess it, stand up and say, 'I got it wrong. Here is how it happened. Here is what I'm doing to fix it.' It is the right thing to do and it is so much more practical," she added.

We live in a time of global news networks and a continuous flow of information. Clarke says too many people in the public and private sectors do not yet understand the simple ground rules of the information age.

"I do not think it is that complex," she explained. "And I think the best advocacy you can put forward for your organization is to be as truthful, as honest, as up-front, as transparent as possible. I think over the long haul that is going to serve you best. There might be some short-term gains by really spinning something very artfully, but I think it is a short-term gain."

She admits the modern flood of information presents challenges. The Internet, for example, mixes opinion with fact, and sometimes fantasy, in web logs, known as blogs. She says the volume of information, some of it questionable, makes some people uncomfortable.

"I know plenty of people who bemoan the explosion of bloggers and say, 'Oh my God. You have got these millions of people out there saying things, doing things and some are credible and some are not,'" she noted. "I love the fact that they are engaged. I love the very fact that they are engaged in this wonderfully tumultuous, open and free society that we have."

With the explosion of information in the modern world, she says industry and government must own up to their mistakes and level with the public. As she says in her new book, Lipstick on a Pig, no matter how you dress it up, a pig is still a pig and there is no sense pretending otherwise.