telling truth to power: don’t flinch

The problem with blowing whistles is, it can mean everything stops, or something wrong is about to be put right, or a journey is about to start – or you are about to climb up out of the trench and face murderous machine-gun fire. The trick is to ensure you get the first three and never the evil fourth.

By Alan Taman

Dan Slee wrote that whistleblowing should be a part of the pr contract. Well, yes it should. But I would argue that in talking truth to power, and not being cut down for it, there are several things that need to happen before you even get to the point of putting whistle to lips. Without any of them, you can hear those hammers being primed. It’s only a question of time. And they are all about perspective – how the senior people see you, and see comms.

Know what you do: ‘Comms’ is all too often an all-embracing catch-all: the organisation’s clown and fire-extinguisher. The reality of course is that it is so much more. It’s a profession. With its own standards, its own values, its own principles – ethics, in other words. Senior people need to see that before they can even begin to understand what exactly it is you are paid for.

Know what you cannot do: ‘It’s only pr’ – the most destructive phrase in the comms language. It’s never ‘just’ pr. It is always about more. In standing as a profession, comms has to distinguish and state what it cannot do: act unethically. So it is never about expediency alone. It is never doing what the CEO says without question. It is never about just obeying the law. If senior managers realise you have principles based on sound argument, it will at the very least provide an opening to see the last thing that needs to happen:

Know who you are: This means you are respected, as a professional. You have autonomy, defined and acknowledged. It also means you have the knowledge and skills to wield that autonomy correctly – a recognition that you have or deserve adequate time and training. And it means you are recognised as a specialist in your own right – you are clearly not just the organisation’s clown and fire extinguisher. 

Most prs in health, if not all, have to earn respect. It isn’t there to start with. Because most healthcare staff and managers simply do not grasp what comms in health is for. That is changing, but slowly. Most are still working in isolation, and that isn’t likely to change. Here a support network is invaluable – essential for fighting ignorance, and for supporting prs when they do have to speak truth to power. We are a long way from that. This is where the solutions lie, and one of the reasons why comms2point0 is valuable.

Otherwise, there will be places where power can eschew responsibility. Our organisations need to be ethical themselves. Which means ensuring personality can never displace a sense of right and wrong. But the nature of power works against that, and in a culture where success often encourages personal authority, if not demands it, being the voice of the company can make being its conscience irreconcilable unless these assurances, described above, are part of the culture. We need ethics at the heart of all we do.

Alan Taman is currently researching and campaigning for better training and standards in health journalism and PR. He is a member of the National Union of Journalist’s Public Relations and Communications Council.  He can be contacted on: or via his website. You can follow the campaign on @healthjournos on Twitter or on

pic via Wikimedia Commons

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