Communicators Should Consider Biting Into the ‘Truth Sandwich’

Thom Weidlich 01.07.21

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A recent article brings to our attention a communications concept that somehow previously escaped that attention: the truth sandwich. In short, it’s a technique to counter misinformation, and its application to crisis response is readily apparent.

The truth sandwich concept isn’t new. It’s credited to linguist George Lakoff, and specifically references how journalists should approach their jobs. But it also counters the typical media-relations advice (to which we mostly subscribe) to not — when correcting a falsehood — repeat that falsehood. (For one thing, it’s cat nip for reporters smelling out a quote.)

The truth sandwich says to, instead, present the truth, then deny the falsehood (including a mention of it if necessary) and then repeat the truth. It emphasizes the importance of setting the frame and of repetition.

The recent Bulldog Reporter article by Brad Phillips and Christina Hennessy of Throughline Group refers to a Lakoff tweet in which he encapsulates the idea:

Truth Sandwich:

      1. Start with the truth. The first frame gets the advantage.
      2. Indicate the lie. Avoid amplifying the specific language if possible.
      3. Return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies.

It’s apparently been a hot topic in journalism circles. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted that reporters should use the technique in countering the rampant disinformation of our time. Roy Peter Clark wrote a column on it in August on the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ website. On the other hand, philosopher Crispin Sartwell pooh-poohed the whole notion in a 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed (headline: “‘Truth Sandwich’? Baloney!”).

Data Breach

Let’s try an example in the crisis world: a data breach. Company X is wrongly accused of holding off on revealing a cyber intrusion until long after it occurred. “We did not delay disclosure,” the company says. “We revealed the breach once we confirmed it.”

That violates both the traditional approach by repeating the misinformation and the truth-sandwich approach by not beginning with the truth. Better: “We disclosed the information as soon as we confirmed the breach. To say otherwise is false. We could not reveal the breach until we were certain it happened.”

That rewrite has the advantage of using the truth sandwich but not repeating the falsehood. We would advise against repeating the incorrect information wherever possible.

Here’s a recent real-world example.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a former Navy SEAL, has been accused by veterans’ groups of participating in a smear campaign against a female Navy veteran. A Dec. 16 Newsweek article included this response from Crenshaw’s spokesperson:

“This is a completely fabricated narrative that has no truth to it. Rep. Crenshaw never participated in a ‘smear campaign,’ as he has said repeatedly. Any claim to the contrary is a slanderous political attack and nothing more.”

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The truth sandwich would say the statement should have gone something more like this:

“Rep. Crenshaw has always lauded his fellow veterans. Any suggestion that he would engage in a smear of a veteran is false. Rep. Crenshaw always respects veterans, and claims to the contrary are nothing more than slanderous political attacks.”

In short, the truth sandwich is a communications approach worth considering. It does risk repeating the falsehood. But its emphasis on the facts could help underscore how false that falsehood is.

Photo Credit: Sander Dalhuisen/Unsplash