"An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."
These were amazing words for the times, spoken by Thomas Jefferson when not everyone went to school, libraries were limited and mass communications were almost nonexistent. More than a century would pass before the idea of objective journalism emerged.
Yet, Jefferson believed it was possible and vital, through the free exchange of ideas, for Americans to arrive at the truth in order to make wise decisions as part of a democracy.
Today, we have every advantage over the people of Jefferson's time when it comes to information resources. Yet, it's probably harder to separate truth from fiction now than it was in the 1700s.
We wrote last year that fake news isn't just a problem for society, but can also harm the reputation of a company that becomes its target. And there are no signs fake news is going away.
When the Pew Research Center recently asked Americans their views on made-up news, more than half said the public's inability to distinguish between news and opinion "is a very big problem."
Meanwhile, lying in public life has become so prevalent that the term "gaslighting" has come into vogue to describe repeated falsehoods designed to make a person or group question their own memories or perceptions.
Further, technology now makes it possible to obliterate the lines between truth and lie, and it's becoming a real problem. A recent Washington Post story reports on the race to identify "deepfakes" — realistic video portrayals of real people saying or doing things they never did.
All of this makes us wonder whether, over time, individuals and businesses could become desensitized to the value of the truth in the stories they tell or — just as bad — decide that determining what's true and what's false takes too much effort. As business leaders, we can't afford to let either happen.
We already know that even a hint that a company has misrepresented its services or products can destroy its most valuable asset: its credibility.
For example, a former employee alleges that executives planned to announce that LaCroix cans would be BPA-free months before the actual effective date, "in order to drive positive buzz and awareness for the brand." LaCroix already was facing lawsuits disputing claims that its flavors are all natural. This week, it was forced to address customer concerns with a social media campaign insisting LaCroix is made of ingredients certified to be natural. LaCroix may be telling the truth, but its stock has tanked.
The bottom line is that in a world filled with lies, the truth still matters to our brands. It means we must be increasingly vigilant about how we portray ourselves and our companies.
It means checking our facts even more thoroughly than before to make sure we are not complicit in the corruption of our communication channels when we pass along content from other sources.
And, it means impressing upon our employees the costs of carelessness, both when it comes to information about ourselves and when it relates to our competitors.
Separating truth from lie is hard work, but a necessary one in Jefferson's free society of educated citizens. In this kind of society, the enemy of the people is not the storyteller, but the inclination to give up.
Sandra W. Harbrecht
President and CEO
Paul Werth Associates
* Sandy's business is based in Columbus, Ohio. She presented a session titled "Socially Empowered Customers Are Taking Control - Realizing the Potential and Pitfalls of the Digital Age" at OAMES 2017 Annual Meeting & Exhibition.