Our job to rebuild trust

There is a significant amount of factual and anecdotal data suggesting that we are at, or near, a "perfect storm" for our own profession - a storm fueled by a growing crisis of trust.

George Clooney has a line in the movie The Perfect Storm in which he states that he's a “swordboat captain” and asks rhetorically, “Is there anything better in the world?”

While you and I may not “sail the seas” or have Mark Wahlberg on our crew, there is a significant amount of factual and anecdotal data suggesting that we are at, or near, a “perfect storm” for our own profession – a storm fueled by a growing crisis of trust.

Like a drumbeat that slowly gets louder, we saw the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street sentiment last year followed by alarming new global data in the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer this winter. That report included an unprecedented nine-point decline in trust in government, followed by a variety of recent corporate reputation crises, crossing industries, and geographies. The tom-tom beat reflecting a continued decline in trust – be it in business or government – shows no signs of slowing down.

The stakes are high. The collapse of trust in the private sector, as well as government, presents a powerful psychological and emotional headwind to economic recovery efforts – in the US and globally. Further, a continued decline in trust could also severely threaten the ability of the economy to recover over the longer term.

Like Clooney's Captain Billy Tyne, we in the corporate communications and public relations fields are in the midst of a truly defining time – one when we have a responsibility to lead the way and an opportunity to transcend the implied limitations of our job descriptions or titles.

Trust starts with each of us. We are uniquely positioned to build trust within our respective organizations or for our clients. However, our efforts must begin with the standards to which we hold ourselves and our peers – and they must be the highest standards of ethics and integrity.

So how do we build trust? Well, as always, potential paths forward certainly abound. However, our current circumstances would suggest that a new approach may be needed – such as the New Model for Corporate Communications that was introduced by the Arthur W. Page Society this year (visit www.awpagesociety.com for more info). The New Model is based on significant research and emphasizes areas such as “belief,” “character,” and “trust.”  For a directionally similar data point, consider the results of the 13th Annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study, which observed: “With the erosion of trust in corporate leadership, consumers have higher expectations and are demanding more information and transparency from companies with which they plan to spend their hard-earned dollars.”

The times when we only worried about the reputation of our own organization or our own clients certainly seem to have passed. The reality that we all live and work in is that an interdependent role exists between the actions of a given organization and the public perception of all organizations. If a given organization loses public trust due to actions that are perceived as unethical, there is some level of negative impact on all organizations. This negative impact – or loss of trust – hurts everyone, as noted when discussing trust-related headwinds to the economic recovery.

An understanding of the interdependence of trust was on display recently at the Best Practices in Ethics Communications Workshop in New York City on June 19, which was hosted by the Ethisphere Institute – the organization that annually recognizes the World's Most Ethical (WME) Companies – along with AECOM Technology Corp. and General Electric. The one-day ethics workshop, originally planned for 75 attendees, drew 95 participants from companies such as Aflac, American Express, Boeing, CIGNA, Edelman, Eli Lilly, Fluor, Fox News, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, The Hartford, TD Bank, and Weber Shandwick, along with the Emory University Center for Ethics and the US Navy.

While most participants were from companies that had already achieved WME recognition, there was a clear sense of urgency among all that there is more work to be done – and an opportunity for all of us to work together to rebuild public trust.

The message is clear. Trust matters. Integrity matters. Character matters.

To paraphrase Captain Billy Tyne, there is “nothing better in the world” than being a corporate communications or public relations professional today.

Paul Gennaro is SVP and CCO at AECOM.

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