27 May 2011

Trust and PR: How does that work

What exactly is trust? Could you define it? 

I thought so. Well, I did some research on trust in PR and this is what I came up with. It’s a small part of my research on trust. I tried to take out the most important and maybe less dull information to share with you. 

Trust is something most people can sense but have hard time to describe. “You know it when you feel it” explained ex-CEO of General Electrics, Jack Welch. Many experts claim that trust is one of the fundamental values in every relationship; whether it is between two people, between government and its public or between corporations and their stakeholders similar rules apply to all these groups while gaining and maintaining trust.

Trust, just like reputation, is build over a period of time and consistent actions; and just like good reputation it can be destroyed overnight and then difficult to restore. To trust means to be vulnerable because it makes people dependant one from another[1]; and this makes trust relatively difficult to win.

Trust brings with it credibility needed for public relations not only to build and maintain relationships with key stakeholders, but also to send their clients messages to the public; and although trust and credibility are two different things, with that credibility the message will be seen as truthful and reliable. This makes sense, doesn’t it?  

Also Rampton and Stauber, authors of ‘Trust Us We’re Experts’ (really interesting book, I would recommend it to PR and non-PR people), believe that to even begin the conversation with an audience, industries need to gain their trust so the people would take their words seriously.
If that trust is neglected it can lead to distrust, which “tends to provoke feelings of anxiety and insecurity, causing people to feel uncomfortable and ill at ease and to expend energy on monitoring the behavior and possible motives of others” (this phrase is so well said, I couldn’t put it in different words)[2]. Neglected trust can lead to forming activist groups, which in the last 20 years seemed to have grown significantly. 

According to Deegan (writer on activism and PR) the most common activists are environmentalists. She said that “in United States alone, 80 per cent of people consider themselves environmentalists […]”, and any publicly quoted company is open to shareholder activism[3]. Latest BP’s oil spill in Gulf of Mexico can serve here as an example showing how many regular people can easily turn into activists and openly criticize and attack a company, when their trust is shaken by environmental problems brought by that corporation. 

I don’t think I even have to mention how badly BP held the crisis situation. They appeared untruthful, unashamed, their communication with the public was bad and they seemed ungrateful, when James Cameron offered BP help by proposing to lend them his deep sea diving equipment. I just wonder how much better the situation could have looked like if the trust between the public and the corporation was maintained with a little bit more superiority. 

 “By re-earning trust for companies, brands and institutions” PR is “raising their favourability ratings”[4]. On the other hand, lets be honest here, it is not the public relations industry itself that attracts or enjoys high level of public trust, (which I’m reminding you, is very important for corporate activities). On the contrary, if you look at the Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2010, you will see that the corporate communications is placed nearly at the bottom of trust ladder and holds only 32 per cent of public trust. Even without the barometer, I don’t think you have to dig deep to find out that many people (even those around you) actually don’t find PR that trustworthy. 

How then, do PR agencies manage their clients trust and reputation? It’s simple if you think about it. They reach for people (or groups of people) who we trust the most. Corporations often tend to use experts such as scientists, doctors, academics or even whole institutions whose expertise not only assures credibility to those companies (nothing works better then ‘putting your words in someone else’s mouth’, said Morrill Rose, executive vice president of Porter/Novelli PR firm) but also allows to discriminate opponents or to create confusion and uncertainty among the public[5]. PR in such situations works behind the scenes, and we don’t get to see its involvement but the results of its work. 

To assure themselves success in their practice, PR professionals have various tools to their disposition. There are many techniques which allow those in PR industry to reach to different audiences and gain their trust. In the next parts of the ‘trust and PR’ topic I will focus on four of such techniques. So read on.

[1] 'Cultivating Trust When it Doesn’t Exist'
[2]  Tschannen-Moran and Hoy, 'A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Nature, Meaning, and Measurement of Trust’, 2000  
[3] Deegan, ‘Managing Activism’ 2001
[4] Moloney, 'Rethinking Public Relations: The Spin and the Substance', 2000
[5] Rampton and Stauber, 'Trust Us We’re Experts',2001

*Photo taken from


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