PR Specialization

Daley’s Razor: On Healthcare Communications & Fake News

“Compelling, if true.”

Those were often the first words out of the mouth of Steve Daley, a former mentor of mine from agency life, when he would hear about the value proposition from a new client.

Daley, who passed away six years ago, was a former Chicago Tribune columnist and White House correspondent (and a fellow American University alumnus). While at Porter Novelli, Steve was both grizzled skeptic and warm-hearted storyteller.

At the time, “compelling, if true” just seemed like a good criterion for judging claims that hadn’t been supported yet.

Now, Daley’s Razor is an edict to all of us in healthcare communications as we rally against fake news, propagated either by false motives or old fashioned apathy. After all, our jobs depend on communicating messages that are both compelling and true. And the health, wellbeing and lives of our audiences depend on our ability to do that.

Compelling messages that don’t have the benefit of being true aren’t hard to find in healthcare.

For better or worse, this problem isn’t new. A recent episode of Gimlet Media’s Reply All podcast tells the fascinating story of John R. Brinkley, a man who used new technologies (broadcast radio) in the early 20th century to make wildly unfounded and dangerous health claims. He found a new medium way ahead of others, combined it with very compelling messages and it made him very, very rich (he died decades later, penniless and with his reputation shredded).

Today, the ability to follow down Brinkley’s footsteps is easier than ever. Just a few keystrokes or a video recorded on a smartphone can quickly create compelling messages that can spread quickly.

Which brings us to the burden of making factual information compelling. Truth that isn’t compelling doesn’t spread, which won’t change behavior.

Often, people who work in healthcare sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the truth alone is enough — that education and awareness are the goal. But it’s up to us to start with the truth and make it worth spreading, all the while remaining faithful to the original facts.

That’s at the very core of PRSA’s Code of Ethics and the recent  statement from PRSA’s 2017 Chair, Jane Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, about “alternative facts.” As Jane writes “Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”

This is our challenge as an industry, but for those of us in healthcare, the stakes are even higher.

Early in my career, I thought that Daley’s Razor was just a skeptical way to dismiss claims that might not have been true, but still sounded great.

Today, I see it as a great gauntlet being thrown to our industry, not just for the sake of our profession, but for the sake of the many audiences we have the ability to reach and minds to change.

In an age of narratives that too often are compelling, but untrue, our jobs are to make them both compelling and true.

I hope you’ll let me know how you feel  — either in the comments or in the myPRSA discussion forums.

Brendon Shank is Vice President for Social Media and PR at Domus, Inc. and chair of the 2017 PRSA Health Academy. He’s the son of two PR professionals (both APRs) and the proud dad of two boys. He’s even married to a PR person. At Domus, Brendon and his team help a variety of national companies use social media, PR and employee engagement to meet their business goals. You can follow Brendon on Twitter at @bshank.


About the author

Brendon Shank


  • 2/23/17
    PRSA Blog post
    Daley’s Razor: On Healthcare Communications & Fake News

    I completely agree with this blog. I’m an undergraduate studying public relations and the number one thing we are taught is to always truthful. Just like you mentioned, but my concern is how do you make something like healthcare compelling? Healthcare should be nothing but true facts, but when you’re competing with people who are twisting the facts to be interesting how do you stand out to the audience?
    I agree that in today’s time being untruthful is a quick way to lose your job. I also see it as a concern because people don’t pay attention to bland facts especially when it comes to healthcare. With that being said I was wondering what are some basic tips on how to make facts a bit more compelling?

    Western Kentucky University

  • I wholeheartedly agree with this post. Addressing the use of alternative facts and the proliferation of fake news, is intriguing and important for a profession plagued by stereotypes of spinning the truth. Considering the PR industry does not spin the truth and relies solely on facts, I believe Brendon Shank easily provided comfort for patients specifically in the healthcare industry that PR professionals will remain honest. Since healthcare relies so heavily on accuracy and ethical practices, condemning fake news is important to maintain a solid reputation in the industry. I also thought the use of fake news was strategic because it is such a salient issue. This gave it some elements of newsjacking, or using timely news to further a brand message, which is exactly what Shenk did for the healthcare industry with this post.

  • This post is the essence of what PR is all about. We are called to bring people to action and change their minds about things. The line between lying and choosing your facts can sometimes get muddled when people think about public relations. In the healthcare industry, public relations may be as important as it is anywhere in the world because it deals with people’s lives and well-being. We must use facts to call people to the action we desire them to take. The thing is that choosing the right facts and the compelling facts is the best way to do that. If facts aren’t compelling and they are boring, they might not change anyone’s mind but it’s always better than lying. As an industry, public relations has to stay on the right side of this line. If not, we could end up like the journalism industry right now and no one may trust us.

    Western Kentucky University

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