EDITORIAL: With trust vanishing, PR pros must rise up

To paraphrase the old song, where has all the trust gone? Today's headlines are a litany of the betrayal of trust, whether it be in business, in religious institutions, or in government.

To paraphrase the old song, where has all the trust gone? Today's headlines are a litany of the betrayal of trust, whether it be in business, in religious institutions, or in government.

Golin/Harris recently published a survey showing major US media outlets increasingly writing about the issue of trust. And BusinessWeek's June 24 special report, "Restoring Trust in Corporate America, detailed the downfall and expected downfall of a host of CEOs, and noted that despite the problems their peers face, other CEOs are still fighting reforms that might help restore shareholder trust in their performance.

The Institute for Crisis Management found that 2001 had more crisis news than any year since it began surveying in 1990. "We're seeing a collapse of trust in institutions that may exceed what we saw in the Vietnam era, said Frank Ovaitt, cochairman of the IPRA's campaign for media transparency.

What does this mean for PR people? Speakers at the recent IABC conference were adamant: PR people must step up and restore trust in the institutions they serve. That means giving honest counsel to CEOs who have lost touch with shareholders and a stock market that feels those same CEOs have been thinking about lining their own pockets rather than about doing what's best for their companies.

PR people have argued for years that they should sit at the decision-making table with other senior executives in the corporate hierarchy.

And in many places today, they are indeed at that table. But unfortunately, the great temptation once there is to become another corporate yes person so as not to jeopardize that all-important seat. That's the last thing CEOs need from their PR people.

"If we don't protect the authenticity of the CEO, then it will not be there, said Mark Schumann, global communications practice leader with Towers Perrin, while speaking at the IABC. "We are more apt to be involved, to sit at the table, when we bring something no one else in the corporation brings."

Wise advice. It's never easy to give bad news or be brutally honest, especially when it may cost a corporate PR person a job or an agency a client. But to just go along will, in the long run, be worse.

And to think that the issue of trust will go away is the height of foolishness.

Trust, says Mark Rozeen, Golin's director of research, "has the potential for being one of those defining issues that will become a filter through which people will judge their relationships with the institutions they deal with."

PR people need to help CEOs realize how their actions are being seen in the broader marketplace and in today's trust-heavy climate. They need to craft messages for clients that ring true in today's realities, and stop churning out press releases that merely mimic what a client may think is important, and instead find out what that client's audiences feel is important, and address those concerns.

If ever there was a time for PR to cast off the spin-doctor image, now is it. PR people need to become sounding boards for their clients, companies, and employers, and become sources of intelligence on what the world is expecting from those institutions. They need to become the link between the insular world of the institutions they serve, and the larger world with which those institutions must deal. And they must be honest in their counsel and messaging. The truth can sometimes hurt, but the world is now demanding nothing less.

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