A new study suggesting that lies and deception are at the core of practicing public relations has sparked a firestorm within the PR industry. 

Earlier this month, a researcher and academic named Ronel Rensburg presented the results of a study at the 23rd International Public Relations Research Symposium, which found that lying and dishonesty run rampant through the profession in Rensburg’s home country of South Africa. The study found that top executives lie not just to the news media they regularly communicate with, but also to their subordinates and superiors as well. The report titled “Lying to Protect the Organization: An Occupational Hazard?” relied on anonymous interviews with more than 20 high-level PR executives at South African firms. It revealed that 17 of the participants had lied in the course of doing their jobs and that 16 of them said they would do it again.

"Of course I lie ­-- I lie because my CEO expects it," one anonymous executive reportedly told the report’s author.

“I lie to the media and my staff. I even have to lie to the CEO because I know more than he does," another reportedly said.

According to a report in the trade journal PR Week, Rensburg’s presentation actually drew gasps from conference attendees. “A pall of shocked resignation fell over the conference session as Rensburg presented more damning evidence gleaned from her informants,” columnist Shannon Bowen wrote. “What if these PR pros, in their brutal honesty, revealed what many feared all along about the profession?”

By most measures, 20 research subjects might not seem large enough to constitute a representative sample. However, it was enough to rile up a hypersensitive PR industry, whose members are used to putting out fires for their clients but perhaps unaccustomed to being the focus of criticism themselves.

Since the paper’s release, trade groups have gone into damage-control mode, and Rensburg, the former president of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa and a board member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management Associations, has come under fire, with critics assailing her study’s sample size and calling it an isolated case that does not reflect the profession’s culture.

“When you look at it from a research perspective, I would say the 20 interviews is not enough to make a statement about how things happen in South Africa,” said Sarab Kochhar, director of research at the Institute for Public Relations. “It's definitely not a reflection of how things are done in North America,” she added.

Rensburg could not be reached for comment on her research. 

Research Is Scarce

Yet so far, industry attempts to contradict Rensburg’s assertions have had to rely on studies of similarly small groups. Kathy Barbour, the National Chair of the Public Relations Society of America, pointed via email to a paper, “PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience,” as proof that deception and lies are not fundamental to the PR profession in North America. The study at the heart of that paper, conducted in 2010, relied on testimony from 25 executives.

Like everything related to media, the impact of public relations has slowly started to become more measurable. Yet accounting for behavior in a credible, empirical way doesn't quite seem possible. “I think the discussion is so common, and it's not something that has an answer,” Kochhar said.

For every affirmation that PR trade groups are abiding by codes of ethics, there are stories of journalists in every country being offered bribes by publicists, sometimes just to mention a company’s name in a pitch meeting. For every publicist affirming how vital honesty is, there is an anonymous confession detailing how much lying happens on a daily basis. 

The reaction to Rensburg’s research speaks to an insecurity PR professionals have about their credibility. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the end of 2014, Americans have long had little respect for people who work in the advertising and media industries, holding them slightly above used car salesmen and members of Congress but well behind most other occupations, including lawyers, bankers and business executives. Separate research conducted earlier this year by the 4As, a trade group that represents the advertising industry, finds that just 4 percent of Americans think that the advertising business has any integrity. 

“Some people still don’t fully understand the function of public relations in business and professional communication,” PRSA chair Barbour wrote to International Business Times. “Unfortunately, they often rely on sensational television representations to help them grasp the profession.

“We are invested in advocating for the profession for that reason.”