Liar, liar. PR pants on fire.

I probably didn’t need the PR in the headline. But I didn’t want you to think that I’ve lost my way on this blog after only a few days.

Is lying ever OK? As public relations practitioners, we counsel clients or those in our organization to tell the truth. We advise honesty and accuracy. And disclosure is the mantra of the blogosphere.

We hold business managers and elected officials to those standards. Why not football coaches, particularly in mega-buck college programs? (I taught in a college classroom a year ago that had no chalk. But that’s another issue.) In high-profile college programs and in the pros, head coaches are really CEOs. And most – all? – work with sports information directors or similar communications officials. But to what end?

Liars, liars pants on fire. Well, not all coaches obviously. But let me stretch the truth a little just to make a point.

John Branch, in a New York Times article (Dec. 30, 2006) said:

Lying is part of the coach’s job-change playbook. Tommy Tuberville once reportedly said that he would have to be carried away from his job at Mississippi in a pine box. Then he departed for Auburn — in a car, or a plane.

Such turnabouts create doubts, fairly or not, about the sincerity of coaches who deny interest in other jobs.

“Part of the psychology and sociology of coaches is that it is a chess game,” said Charlie Maher, a professor of psychology at Rutgers and a team psychologist in the N.F.L., N.B.A. and Major League Baseball. “Fans have seen it so many times, they say that it’s just part of the game.”

Consider the past few weeks:

Days after Boston College Coach Tom O’Brien released a statement saying, “I’m not a candidate for any job,” he was named the coach at North Carolina State.

Ten months ago, when the well-traveled Dennis Erickson accepted the job at Idaho, he said the only reason he would leave would be to retire; he left a couple of weeks ago for Arizona State.

West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez, upset about reports that he was headed to Alabama, called a radio talk show and said he planned to spend his entire career at West Virginia. Days later, he mulled a job offer from Alabama. He ultimately turned it down. (Note: Rodriquez just accepted the head coaching job at Michigan.)

Then Branch adds:

Most sociologists and psychologists who have written about the subject of lying say it can be justified — from answering “fine” when someone asks, “How are you?” to deceiving someone who intends harm.

A blip in the vast gray area between is the deception surrounding a coaching change. Particularly in the high-profile sports of college football and basketball, coaches must wrestle with lying, or with telling the truth and receiving the scorn of employers, players, alumni, recruits and the news media.

Well, well. I wonder what we would say if the CEO of Wal-Mart, headquartered in Arkansas, took similar liberties with the truth when dealing with employees (faculty and staff), customers (students and parents), shareholders (public and taxpayers) and members of the news media.

capt_d9701ccb7fbb4e43b87ac772c721d2ef_falcons_jets_football_eru113.jpgAnother major employer in Arkansas, the University of Arkansas, apparently doesn’t have any ethical or other problems hiring someone who exhibits the Pinocchio syndrome.

Bobby Petrino, formerly of the University of Louisville and more recently the Atlanta Falcons, has just been named the head football coach at the University of Arkansas. In his column in the New York Times, Petrino’s Departure Particularly Disturbing, William C. Rhoden writes:

This was the sport equivalent of adultery with the attendant betrayal: of the owner who hired you, of the players who played for you. How do you look your team in the eye day after day knowing you’re plotting an exit and have another love interest in sight.

And we wonder why so many young athletes coming into these pro leagues seem to have lost their moral compasses. They haven’t lost them. Their coaches never handed them out.

The day before Petrino resigned, the Falcons the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, said Petrino looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said he was his coach.

Truth, honesty, fairness, disclosure. Those values create the solid foundation on which public relations programs are built. I guess football coaches – and their employers? – are held to a different standard. And, sports information directors/communications directors at these organizations, well, good luck.

I grew up in an era when writer Kurt Vonnegut had a voice that resonated among those who had a cynical view of those in authority. And he had, to say the least, a rather dark and satirical view of life in the United States A favorite saying of his: So it goes.vonnegut_narrowweb__300x3840.jpg

From a public relations perspective, I believe we should hold everyone to the highest standards of truth, honesty, accuracy and disclosure. Even football coaches. And their employers, universities and professional sports franchises.

Will this happen?

Well, we’ll see. But in the meantime, so it goes.

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One response to “Liar, liar. PR pants on fire.

  1. Indeed! The fires of liars pants–are not so brilliant. Not even in creative writing, which is the only thing I really can speak to, since I have no authority or skill or training in the PR world!

    However I don’t know if Lee Scott is an authority on corporate ethics. Though more than the great bruise that Wal-Mart is in the vast American eye—the thing that troubles me most about this company is that they have not communicated efficiently to customers how to operate efficiently within a check-out queue. If you’ve been to a Wal-Mart recently, you’ll know what I mean.

    Of course, my real point is that action and information, as you seem to imply, is much more important than the old clichés in honesty—and teaching honesty and accountability for language (spoken/written/etc…) is crucial.

    But George Bernard Shaw said it better: “We must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy”

    Or maybe Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

    So it goes.

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