The objective of trust

The readings on rhetoric were profoundly applicable to the classes I teach: Communications Management I and II. Taught as a continuum, the classes begin with defining PR, including the history and ethical implications, the core competencies of the communications professional, now and in the future, and then onto strategy and planning, beginning with the RACE formula (Research Analysis Communications Evaluation).

I teach my students about the communications objective/engagement continuum: awareness, understanding, acceptance and then behaviour change. It originally applied to employee engagement, but it easily works when explaining the various levels of communications objectives. But the article by Robert Heath adds an added layer: trust. He argues, and I agree, that the value that public relations has to society is that of trust. (Heath, Robert, 2000). “Trust is the ultimate goal, beyond understanding and agreement” (Heath, R., p. 80).

And if we think about it, and most of our readings, and much of the news that relates to our readings, it really all comes down to trust. “People identify with those they trust,” writes Heath. “They also trust those who enact and advocate narratives that they accept and enact” (Heath, p. 81). Let’s look at a couple of examples of misplaced trust, ripped from the headlines:

1. Ghomeshi. In his mea culpa “it’s them not me” Facebook post, he uses his popularity and power — just as the mass media use their power as discussed in this week’s readings on mass media — to build trust. He all but says, “trust me, it’s their word against mine” when he writes: “But I am telling this story to you so the truth is heard.” As we witnessed in the days following, his was not the truth we trusted, despite his position of power. To their credit, his public relations firms ended their relationship with them, ensuring their trust and their reputation stayed intact. They saw, as Heath outlines, that their own credibility was based on “unfailing demonstrated commitment to advance society because of the good of society, not the singular good of the advocate” (Heath, p. 81).

2. Bill Cosby. Cosby’s reputation as everyone’s favourite 80s-sweater wearing funny dad is faltering everyday as allegations of sexual harassment and drugged rape continue. “We may be looking at America’s greatest serial rapist that ever got away with this for the longest amount of time,” his latest victim has said. “He got away with it because he was hiding behind the image of Cliff Huxtable.” And the longer he stays quiet, the longer his source credibility disintegrates. This is one situation no public relations firm would be willing to take on. It’s just too late.

If we as practitioners of public relations adhere to the Bryant-Wallace “The Oath of a Public Speaker” (Heath, p. 79), we will all be doing our profession proud — a profession that suffers from the ironic shoemaker-syndrome (our own profession suffers from bad PR). Slightly amended it could very well be our own Hippocratic Oath, perhaps a necessary step when the notion of trust is becoming increasingly just that: a notion. We must all act in the public interest, as the CPRS definition of Public Relations states, not in the interest of Jian, or Bill, or a particular government. It’s our “do no harm” clause. Trust me.

Engagement but also communications objectives

Engagement but also communications objectives

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3 thoughts on “The objective of trust

  1. I am interested to see the discussion of including trust in the toolbox for communication work. I’d like to share my experiences as a student of public relations. About eight years ago, I took some public relations courses at a local university, which had a strong emphasis on the skillset needed to be a successful public relations professional, with learnings on the tactical communication skills: planning, writing, media relations, research, ethics and communication tools.
    A few years after that, I took a management for PR certificate, with a different emphasis: PR as a strategy to manage reputation, relationships and business success. The second program emphasized trust. Part of the foundational coursework included the benefits to the organization when they use public relations strategies to improve their relationship with their clients, stockholders, taxpayers or donors (depending on the organization).
    Things I learned about trust that have held true in every organization I‘ve worked for:
    – When an organization does what it says it is going to do, tells the truth when there are issues, takes ownership for mistakes, acts with integrity and doesn’t cut corners, the publics of that organization place their trust in it
    – When the clients/publics of an organization have the opportunity to interact with employees who represent the organization in a positive way, and work together on projects, issues and policies, they begin to trust the organization
    – When trust has been built over time as above, the publics will trust the organization in a crisis, and will at least give benefit of the doubt in conflict situations
    – Business is faster in organizations that act in a trustworthy way (read more about this in Stephen Covey’s 2006 book, The Speed of Trust)
    – The leaders and employees of an organization = the organization. How they act will affect the organization’s reputation
    – One slip-up or lie can undo years of built-up trust, and the organization has to begin again in building a relationship of trust
    This discussion helped me see the difference between the definitions of communications and public relations – a small difference that we take for granted – public relations emphasizes building positive relationships and trust, which we do through the practice of good communications.
    For further reading, this is a good post: http://www.instituteforpr.org/trust-and-pr-practice/ and this one: http://www.cuttingedgepr.com/articles/why-trust-is-really-important-to-you.asp
    PS, another note on today’s parenting discussion in class, the above bullet points will help you as the leader of a family unit to build relationships and trust on a personal level too. ☺
    I hope people have some comments to add to this comment.

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  2. As I was reading both the original post, as well as Margaret’s response, I was struck by how individuals and organizations mirror one another. Let me explain:

    The issue of trust is an important one when we engage with people every day. It’s both a gut-feeling (‘I feel I can trust this guy’) and an objective reality (‘this guy hasn’t lied to me before, so I can trust him, at least for now’). When someone betrays our trust, like was said above, it’s difficult to gain it back because we feel duped, and no one wants to think that they didn’t see warning signs.

    This whole issue of trusting an organization or institution is interesting, because many people who are critical of, say, The London Free Press or Westjet or a politician/political party nevertheless ‘trust’ those organizations, maybe with a critical eye, but trust all the same. The whole issue of trust then becomes an issue of branding; making the brand seem like an individual with whom a person (consumer) is engaging is, I believe, an effective way to do that. We want to connect with others. We’re social creatures and we crave a personal touch.

    I think people/companies/institutions that have used Twitter effectively, for example, have learned to adapt a new technology to hone in on that never-changing part of human nature. When you’re boarding your WestJet flight and you tweet that you just hate waiting for your seat to be called, and someone from the company tweets back that they feel your pain, you (the consumer) feel elated that someone’s listening. Maybe they’ll even take your suggestion/criticism up the corporate ladder. It’s personal. When a reporter from the London Free Press tells you about the delicious bites of pizza she’s taking in between interviews on election night, you (the reader) get a small glimpse into what a newsroom might be like during a tight but exciting deadline. You’ve never been in a newsroom but you like that you’re being given a glimpse through that window. When Tony Clement tells you he’s eating a Beaver Tail on a chilly night on the Rideau Canal, you (the left-leaning voter) know he’s a politician but you can’t help thinking about the time you ate a delicious pastry on the canal while skating with your family as the cold Ottawa wind whistled around you…or something like that 🙂 Are you more likely to fly WestJet again? Buy the London Free Press? Consider Tony Clement (and his party) more human? I’d bet on it.

    My point is, the most effective communicators use whatever tools are available to them (whether a new technology like Twitter or an old one like a town square) to engage directly with the subject of the communication (the receiver). Like I said during class yesterday, I think the human instinct to connect, and the human nature of wanting to be heard/listened to, hasn’t changed. It’s just how we do it — and those people/institutions/corporations that figure out how to make the majority of their audience tune in and engage, are always going to do better than those that don’t. It really is an issue of trust.

    I like how you put that, Margaret, that “public relations emphasizes building positive relationships and trust, which we do through the practice of good communications.” I think despite the fact that the word “public” is a pretty big part of “public relations,” the “good communications” part is engaging your entire public, no matter how diverse or large, as if they’re the only ones in the room.

    It’s what Jian Ghomeshi did so well — he was talking to thousands of people, but we felt as if he was talking to just us, one on one. He responded to tweets personally. Bill Cosby and his funny sweaters could have been our dad, or some rendition of that image (this whole Cosby-as-America’s-dad thing is a bit foreign to me, as I was but a wee babe in Communist Poland when the Huxtables were burning up the airwaves, but I digress).

    The more we feel we have a personal connection with the person we’re communicating with (whether a radio personality or a company like WestJet), the harder the betrayal is to take, I think. The better the ‘brand’ connection, the better for the company/organization/institution, but likewise the more detrimental to the brand if/when the trust bond is broken and we feel betrayed.

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  3. Ok, so I know this may seem a little off topic, but when I was reading this post I began thinking about how PR professionals manage their own reputations in an effort to maintain/gain trust for their organizations and our profession. My first thought was ‘yes! go us!’, as I really want to believe and contribute to a movement of increased responsibility for communication professionals. However, my next thoughts were about the reasons for why many organizations make an effort to be transparent and trustworthy. Is it, as Kate alluded to, because if they/we are trusted, it positively effects the bottom line?

    I wonder if PR practitioners could operate under the radar (a secret profession, if you will), would they be so quick to drop the Jian’s of the world? I’m not sure if anyone else is obsessed with Scandal- maybe this is an embarrassing admission- but I watch it religiously. The main character on the show ‘handles’ potentially controversy-causing situations for Ottawa’s rich and powerful. While she has her own set of moral guidelines, her actions certainly wouldn’t survive public scrutiny if her cases were public. I am very aware that this is a fictional tv show, however it’s definitely plausible, and disturbing for the idealists among us…

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