Safeguarding public sector reputations in a post-truth world

As a child, I justified my bad behaviour relentlessly; it was always my friends' faults, they had told me to do it.

Combating distrust is simple: invest your time in managing good relationships with your experts, writes Holly Finch
Combating distrust is simple: invest your time in managing good relationships with your experts, writes Holly Finch

As adults, we know better than to do, say or trust something because somebody else says so.

Or do we?

In a world of online demons such as fake news and post-truth, it is easy to see how people are still subconsciously influenced by fabricated, misinformed, and sometimes plain ridiculous, information.

As public relations professionals working in the public sector, it is our responsibility to ensure our audiences get to the bottom of mistruth and to safeguard the reputations of the organisations we work hard to protect.

The vast amount of content that people consume each day should provide society with a common understanding of the world and the way people live.

It has been argued that without this common understanding, the idea of the public as 'a collective entity possessing shared concerns' starts to fall apart.

Post-truth skews the traditional common understanding by antagonising audiences and their increasingly polarised views, challenging their perceptions of news around important issues, such as Brexit.

For us to address these ever-developing issues around truth and trust, we need to understand what it takes for a person to 'trust' somebody or something.

A recent study by Dr Friederike Hendriks from the University of Muenster, Germany, explored exactly that.

Hendriks reports that 60 per cent of people turn to the internet to search for expert information in many areas, including science and economics, when faced with a problem they need to solve beyond their understanding.

She concludes that for the expert information to be trusted, people require experts to hold three qualities: expertise, integrity and benevolence.

Experts are an integral part of public sector communications, especially for universities, where they are vital in communicating the impact of their research.

Understanding what qualities experts require to ensure the audience trust what they are saying will enable us to plan effective communications on a case-by-case basis, and appreciate that audiences may not be influenced by the experts we present to them, simply because they are experts.

Prior to Hendriks' work, early 1950s research in the US exploring audiences’ attitudes towards content found that people immediately trust, and are influenced by, content from high-credibility sources, even if the information is not true.

However, what’s more interesting is that audiences were asked again a month later whether they trusted the content, and the results showed that over time source credibility had been forgotten.

Information consumed from both low- and high-credibility sources was retained and passed on.

While it would be unethical to act on the knowledge that any expert, credible or not, can relay messages that will eventually be remembered, we should use this as a reminder that negative messages can also stick, increasing reputational risk.

Combating distrust is simple: invest your time in managing good relationships with your experts, relaying the importance of communicating with openness, consideration and kindness.

If you are all on the same page of the ethics book, reputation will be protected organically.

Holly Finch is a media relations officer in the Department of Marketing and Communications at Canterbury Christ Church University

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