The autocracy of Truth. Knowledge as a prerequisite of trust and dialogue in Public Relations.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Introduction and purpose of the study
Notions of truth and knowledge have reclaimed the interest of academic field at least since Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway first used the expression ‘alternative facts’ and inspired popular discourse to contest the traditional notion of a lie. Subsequent scandalous manipulations made by companies like Cambridge Analytica confirmed the shift in attitudes towards what had been considered objectively truthful but now is subject to democratic, popular vote. Various authors have since attempted to provide explanations of the decreasing trust in experts, the value of academic achievement, and disregard for objective knowledge (e.g. Nichols, 2016; Sloman, 2017; Sunstein, 2017).
The goal of this paper is to provide evidence of explanatory power stemming from using a psychological, micro-level repertoire of tools for understanding the mechanism of knowledge formation.

Literature review
Bentele and Seidenglanz (2008) notice that today’s societies, based on knowledge and information, became more dependent on the non-immediately verifiable facts, and the role of trust and credibility defined as a prerequisite for effective communication. PR agents often initiate the exchange of information between various parties (publics, organisations, stakeholders), a process which is subsequently mediated by journalists and influencers. According to Edwards and Hodges (2011), the production of discourse is fundamental to public relations, as it is a means by which ‘truth’ is communicated (Mackey, 2011). Knowledge has been also conceptually used to separate Public Relations from propaganda as demonstrated in a critical review by L’Etang (2008). It is said that Public Relations produce and regulate meaning through knowledge (Hodges, 2006). From a societal perspective, knowledge, opinion and values can be also considered building blocks of culture (Smajs, 2006). However, typically both terms (knowledge and truth) are utilised to build predictions on a mezzo and macro – rather than micro – levels of analysis, typical for sociological approaches.
Edwards demonstrates the interdisciplinary character of the field of Public Relations and shows that it is inherently multi-paradigmatic. She also warns about the dangers stemming from the dominance of one paradigm (2012). One of the perspectives only occasionally visited by PR scholars is psychological social psychology. It has been almost thirty years since Morgan and Swchalbe (1990) noticed that the distance between sociological and psychological social psychology had decreased and presented specific benefits of incorporating social cognitive perspective into sociological social psychology discourse. Authors argued that lack of communication between two fields led to neglecting contributions of the cognitive revolution, which for social psychology could be translated into better understanding how mind and information processing affect human behaviour in its social contexts.
From a social psychological perspective, knowledge formation processes have been said to be inherent in every act of human behaviour. Although secular in nature, people need the knowledge to be able to face and solve various tasks encountered in everyday life. The knowledge formation process as interpreted by Kruglanski (1989) explains an abundance of phenomena on an individual (e.g. the use of heuristics in decision making, goal planning and attainment, stereotype formation and loyalty towards brands), group (fake news sharing, collective narcissism, choice of group leaders) and societal level (tolerance towards immigrants, preference for authoritarian leaders).
As demonstrated elsewhere, micro (individual) level of analysis in Public Relations has been proposed to explain how PR and PR professionals can contribute to building effective relationships with stakeholders based on contextually relevant social knowledge.

Given the mix of frequently consistent approaches to knowledge and truth in the rich body of Public Relations theorising and their role in Public Relations, it was interesting to examine, how in practice the knowledge formation facilitation idea is executed by PR professionals. This goal has been designed for two steps.
In the first, media content analysis was used to determine different practices of spreading news and their accuracy by the media depending on different outlets. Secondly, an experimental method was employed to test how participants - PR professionals and journalists would evaluate the truthfulness (DV1) and the likelihood of sharing (DV2) press releases containing a different version of fictitious stories differing in a level of clarity, detail and objective truthfulness (IV1). Implicatures, presuppositions and contradictions were used to manipulate different levels of consistency between original stories and press releases. Additionally, different media outlets were presented depending on the experimental condition (IV2).

Results and Implications
Results revealed participated lower than expected ability to distinguish truthful and non-truthful messages and higher than expected proneness to disseminate inaccurate stories. Implications for education and practice, including training of professional development of chartered practitioners are offered. Concluding remarks stress the need to emphasis responsibility for truthfulness and the value of knowledge as factor that needs to be included in higher (mezzo and macro) level Public Relations theorising.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication26th BledCom international conference
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • knowledge
  • truth
  • trust
  • psychology
  • public relations

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