Pretending it's gone can rebuild trust

In one PR forum after another, the question keeps popping up: In the wake of so much scandal and in the face of so much skepticism, how do we rebuild trust in our institutions?

In one PR forum after another, the question keeps popping up: In the wake of so much scandal and in the face of so much skepticism, how do we rebuild trust in our institutions?

But suppose that's the wrong question.

For a wide range of institutions, trust has been damaged to a degree not seen since the Vietnam War. It's not just corporations that are suffering a precipitous drop in public confidence. Equally damaged are the mainstream media, religious leaders, governments and politicians, nonprofits, and even the professions.

Maybe it's time for a totally different mindset. If we acknowledge trust is gone - and assume it's not coming back - how might that change how we operate and communicate? In a climate of very low trust, how should an organization behave in order to continue doing business and being relevant?

At the International Public Relations Research Conference in March, Brad Rawlins and Kevin Stoker of Brigham Young University presented a paper with an unusually straightforward title: Taking the BS out of PR: Creating Genuine Messages by Emphasizing Character and Authenticity.

The authors define BS as communication that misleads, short of lying. "BS is not false, it is fake," they say. The danger signals abound. Warning lights should go off in our heads whenever an action is labeled a "PR trick" or "just a bunch of PR." That means that organizational decisions and communications are perceived as less than genuine.

On the flip side, when communications are authentic and accountable, "transparency becomes self- regulating, encouraging organizations to choose only practices they can publicly justify."

More than ever, many organizations claim transparency as a core value. Maybe their PR counselors should take Rawlins' and Stoker's "BS test": Do you care more about how your behavior makes you look than how well it reflects your real character? Do you invite affected parties to take part in shaping decisions, as well as communications? Do you personally verify facts before releasing information, or are you just the messenger? Does the message lead a stakeholder to a rational decision based on accurate, complete, and verifiable information?

This approach seems like a major step toward running your organization as if trust is broken beyond repair. If that attitude seems extreme or even defeatist, ponder the two big advantages it offers.

First, it is well-grounded in the here and now. If you assume zero trust, then every transaction or communication must include immediate reassurances and rewards to make the desired interaction possible. Don't even think about asking for long-term trust. Rather, operate in a way that is so straightforward - and cognizant of the other party's needs - that the most basic forms of short-term trust are enough to get the job done.

And the second advantage? This type of behavior is exactly what might bring back long-term good will and credibility, someday, for some institutions.

Organizations that operate as if trust is gone and not coming back - and therefore, they have to earn the confidence of every stakeholder in every interaction - are the most likely to eventually experience a resurgence of long-term trust. But let it be a pleasant surprise when it happens.

Frank Ovaitt is president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

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