It's not just us hacks who don't believe the hype. A cynical European public believes that the vast majority of companies think about nothing other than the bottom line or?as it is phrased in the case of public companies?giving the shareholders a good return on their investment.
Fleishman-Hillard has spent the last few months surveying the European public on its opinion of multinational companies. It is no surprise that 88% of the thousands of respondents wanted large companies to pump profits back into the community to try to solve some of those societal ills such as poverty and unemployment. More astonishing, however, was the fact that not one of the 1000 Brits who were interviewed said they trusted corporations.
The French were the most 'trusting,' and even then, only 13% said they had any faith in the big companies.
It is this skepticism that makes the understanding of concepts such as reputation, trust and credibility so important. It is no longer good enough to tell people that you 'wash whites whiter;' the public has to truly believe in your brand. And when there's a crisis, it becomes even more important to be able to make people believe you?just ask Exxon or Union Carbide?otherwise your brand and all your hard work could end up as no more than a footnote in business history.
This is why the PRSA and the Rockefeller Foundation have spent the last five years trying to establish a credibility index, a measure of how reliable or plausible different spokespeople are in different contexts.
What the National Credibility Index demonstrates above all else, is the complexity of communicating with the public. The most comprehensive media blitz won't work if people don't believe your spokesperson, and one particular spokesperson?however 'respected' he or she may seem?is unlikely to be credible on all issues to all audiences. Mass communications tend not to work as well as targeted communication with carefully picked spokespeople matched to each audience.
Although the key messages are important, PR pros have a habit of obsessing over the detail of the statements while assuming that the best person to quote on the issue is the CEO. Often, according to the NCI, the PR pro's time would be better spent finding a local or middle manager with more knowledge of the specific issue than worrying about dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's.
It is not just communicators in the corporate arena who could learn a thing or two from the NCI, either. Ron Hinckley, president and CEO of Research Strategy Management, points out that recent divisive arguments over such issues as police brutality could, perhaps, have been avoided if the choice of communicators had been better. Rudy Giuliani, take note.
Finally, it is important for all PR pros to remember that a communications professional has just about the same credibility rating as a pop star or a talk show host. Does that mean the PR pro should never communicate with the public? No, it doesn't. It means that the profession needs to work on its own image?and,of course, to adhere to the truth at all times.