How PR pros can solve the trust problem

Lack of trust in companies and their leaders is not a new issue.

Lack of trust in companies and their leaders is not a new issue. However, levels of distrust have soared in the past two years, according to Donald Baer, chairman of Penn Schoen Berland and worldwide vice chairman of Burson-Marsteller.

At a recent meeting for the Institute for Public Relations, Baer shared these grim statistics about the mood of the US general population during the current economic turmoil:

• 62% believe that corporations and their spokespeople are generally dishonest and that most communications from companies are lies
• 74% are less trusting of CEOs, while 70% are less trusting of information about products and services than they were two years ago.
• 65% describe CEOs in negative terms – overpaid, money hungry, dishonest, corrupt, and selfish.
• Executives underestimate the level of distrust and real anger shared by many Americans.

Survey respondents said companies must do many things to regain their trust – lower executive compensation, treat their employees right, care about customers, and provide and stand behind quality products. But the three most important requirements are to be honest (21% of respondents), be transparent and accountable (10%), and care about people and customers (8%).

These requirements underscore the crucial role of communications in rebuilding trust – a lesson that should be prioritized to PR students. So what can individual PR pros at any level do to help their organizations? Here are six suggestions:

1. Perform all work competently and ethically. Competency in carrying out duties and responsibilities is an important factor in trust.

2. Consider everything your company says and does through a trust lens. Imagine you, your family, and friends are customers for your own communications.

3. Show concern for others in the workplace and marketplace.

4. Listen actively. If something seems “off” in your organization's words or actions, discuss it professionally with your supervisor. Be an advocate for accuracy and transparency.

5. Don't over-rely on electronic communications. Humanize your communications and interactions with others to the extent possible. And encourage your company executives to do the same.

6. Remember that employees are ambassadors for their organizations. Every employee has overlapping networks of colleagues, friends, family members, groups, and clubs. You can put a positive personal face on your company in interactions with stakeholders and those in your extended networks.

Trust is an essential quality for lasting organizational success. And it's everyone's business in the company to attend to it.

Dr. Bruce Berger is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Alabama. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals, and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu.

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