Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's all about building trust--an important barometer

I wonder how often communicators and PIOs stop and ask themselves: now what am I doing this for? Beyond the obvious answer (to keep my job), there are many possible answers about why to communicate in a crisis or emergency: public safety, response effectiveness, keep elected officials happy, keep elected officials' electorates happy, help your bosses keep their jobs, and on and on. But I think we can simplify by focusing on the goal of building and maintaining public trust. If trust in those we entrust for our health and safety is lost, no response can be effective. Public trust is both an essential means to the end of restoring the community and/or organization to some form of normalcy, and it is an end itself.

Before you start trying to build trust in a major response, it might be good to ask the question: does the public trust me, my superiors, my agency, my elected leaders now? I hate to tell you this but if you are in government or major corporations, the news is not so good. Edelman, the largest independent PR firm, has been conducting a survey every year for the past ten years and have developed what they call the Trust Barometer. Through the years they can tell if the public trust in leaders and institutions is improving or declining. It's been on a steep decline for the past few years. This year there is some sign of hope with some fairly significant improvements. That is only encouraging until you know just how low the numbers really are. I suggest you take a very good look at the report from Edelman, but here are few highlights (or lowlights):

- trust in business in the US jumped 18 points in 2009, but still is only at 54% compared to Brazil, India and China where trust in business is over 60%.
- trust in government in the US is lower than that of business, at 46% with a 16 point increase in 2009. In Russia trust in government is down 10 points this year to 38%.
- trust in the mainstream media is exceedingly low and declining--for television news it is down to 20% from 43 in 2008.
- Media companies and insurance companies are the least trusted, with banks just above them. Technology companies are most trusted.

This subject of public trust deserves much more study in my mind, including by PIOs, government communicators and those in public relations. Personally, I believe the distrust of everything big and powerful (like big business and government) is a result of our education system dominated by a educators who went to school (like me) during the late 60s and 70s--in other words, long term repercussions of the cultural revolution. I also think our media institutions have a lot to do with it since their audience building methods are largely based on sensational stories of blame, fault, and black hatted corporate and government types. It is ironic I think that those who seem so quick to assign blame and fault to others are suffering the worst of the loss of trust.

Whatever the reasons, I think it very helpful to realize that when we communicate in an emergency we don't necessarily have the media as a trusted partner, and that we begin communicating already in somewhat of a hole when it comes to public trust. The result of this should not be, oh dear, now I really have to spin things. Just the opposite. It is to realize that trust is built on two things: doing the right things, and communicating about them well. Communicating well, above all means, with utmost honesty, transparency and credibility. If everyone did that, and communicated directly rather than through those whose primary objective is to secure eyes to a screen, public trust would once again start to build.

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