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College of Information and Communications


PR Prose: Deeper into the abyss — Why liars do it

Posted March 7, 2018
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, professor in the public relations sequence

Reprinted with permission from PRWeek


The last column I penned, "The 3 types of liars: How to spot and deal with them before they ruin your team," generated a lot of positive comment and feedback, so much that I wanted to again address the topic of unethical behavior.

Many emails I received on that column recounted horrible stories of subterfuge, betrayal, and underhanded behavior on a public relations team, on the part of a client, or even perpetrated by a superior. However, the common theme among almost all was: "Why?" As in, "Why would our own client undermine our efforts on their behalf?" Or "Why would the person lie after all our hard work when he or she had nothing to gain?" Examples were about the worst types of liars, normally the narcissist or sociopath, so I’m delving further into that territory.

After two decades studying ethics, my research since last summer has taken on a darker quality: exploring deception and trying to answer questions exactly like those frustrating these PR managers. Examining the abyss of full-blown sociopathology is certainly not a fun way to spend several months, but it is extremely enlightening in terms of the crucial role of ethics. Taking a closer look offers some disturbing — yet revealing  facts.

Lies are more about the person telling them than they are about those they are perpetrated against. When you suspect a team member of lying, note what they are lying about and the nature of the lie. What is it that the lie says about this person’s competencies, fears, or behaviors? Don’t take lies personally and realize the liar is telling you something important about their own character. You may be able to track down some extremely disingenuous behavior by following the trail of lies and what they cover up.

Mentally ill liars, such as sociopaths and narcissists, use scapegoating and denial of responsibility. Sociopaths will even deny their own statements that were made directly to you, or deny evidence that is clearly visible and apparent to make you believe the misunderstanding is on your part, a concept called "gaslighting." Most normal team members will admit faults or mistakes when pressed for "the real story," yet sociopaths will invent excuses of an ever-increasing scale. This is the way the person tells you they have no conscience and does not value you  or the organization  enough to offer any reasonable explanation, let alone truth.

Look for projection in statements that seem odd or misplaced. Normally there is an element of projection, meaning that the lie or odd statement highlights some real or perceived inadequacy of the person telling it. For example, one sociopath told me that he groomed his cat for a routine vet visit to ensure that the vet did not ask if the cat was being abused. Why would this person’s mind jump to cat abuse as part of a routine annual vet visit? It seems that the poor cat probably has a bleak existence, at best, and is perhaps a victim of abuse. Projection is similar to an admission of guilt but aimed at others, placing blame externally because most liars can’t accept responsibility for any wrongdoing.

Lies tend to make those with little "true" power feel powerful. Only they are in possession of the truth, and keeping it obscured behind a smokescreen offers temporary relief from the crushing burden of an empty ego by making the person important. Both narcissistic and sociopathic liars use this strategy for different ends: to create chaos and confusion, or to create selfish gratification because they can. One sociopath admitted, without any apparent conscience whatsoever, "I lie because I can. That’s it." Either way, the result is disastrous to your team, to your leadership, to morale, and to results. Do not allow yourself or your comm team to be used in this way.

Liars know the truth. Along the conduct of this line of research, some people ask me, "Does the person even know what the truth is when they have lied so much?" The answer is yes. The liar definitely knows what the truth is because he or she will take enormous care to avoid it. You can test this proposition quite simply by offering a truthful explanation as an "offhand idea" or "random possibility" and watch the immediate reaction closely. The liar will usually react physically, and certainly with vehement denial. They are then likely to attack your character or motives, and may even resort to labeling or name calling. The problem then becomes one of evil intent rather than unintentional failure.

Use ethical behavior to protect yourself from liars. Discuss moral standards and stick to them, refusing to allow lies to derail your efforts or the liar to use you for ego gratification. When you suspect someone’s motives, verify everything and take nothing at face value. Distance yourself in every way you can from those whose activities resemble what is described above.

The person with evil intent may be able to get along in the world, but they are dangerously compromising to public relations because everything we do depends on credibility, veracity, and honest communication.

In today’s environment of fake news, that ethical responsibility is heightened more than ever. Our ethical judgment is often called upon to counsel organizations and create paths for strategic management. Surround yourself with those who strengthen this capability and enhance your ability to function as an ethical communication pro.