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MANAGING PUBLIC RELATIONS IN TIMES OF TRUST CRISIS

We live in an unprecedented time. It is a time when public trust in major institutions of society has fallen to an all time low, according to the 2017 Edelman’s Trust Barometer. The study reveals that trust in government, media, business and NGOs has nosedived to 41%, 43%, 52% and 53% respectively. This is a big blow on Public Relations practitioners whose work is to leverage on trust to establish, build and maintain relationships for organizations and select individuals. In this new era, only PR professionals with a deep understanding of trust and the ability to build it into the PR process will be able to develop and implement Public Relations programmes that deliver the desired results for their clients or organizations.

What Is Trust?

The word “Trust” seems to mean different things to different people. Perhaps the best definition is that given by Brad L. Rawlins in his article, Trust and PR Practice, posted in the Institute for Public Relations’ website: “Trust is one party’s willingness – shown by intention and behavior to be vulnerable to another party based on confidence developed cognitively and affectively that the latter party is (a) benevolent    (b) reliable   (c) competent   (d) honest and (e) open.”

This definition nails it. It captures the essence and character of Trust.’

Levels of Trust

Trust is the bedrock of the human family. It permeates life on four levels: Self/personal, interpersonal, organizational and at the level of society as a whole.

Self trust is the personal conviction and confidence that we have what it takes to set and achieve personal goals and increase our credibility in order to win the trust of others. As Steven MR Covey noted, it is the foundation for all other levels of trust.

Interpersonal trust has been defined as the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another based on assessments about the characteristics of the other party such as ability, benevolence and integrity.

I find the definition of organizational trust by Pamela Shockley–Zalabak and colleagues in their book titled Building the High Trust Organization, which was based on IABC sponsored research of over 60 organizations, very much on point. According to them, “Organizational trust is the over-arching belief that an organization in its communication and behaviours is competent, open and honest, concerned, reliable and worthy of identification with its goals, norms and values.”

Societal trust, on the other hand, is the confidence that all stakeholders and other members of a society have on an organization based on its continuous demonstration of corporate social responsibility.

Trust Is a Choice

As PR practitioners, we work hard to build trust with stakeholders of our organizations or clients so that we can leverage on it to influence their opinions, attitudes, perceptions and behaviours in our favour. Sometimes, we work so hard but gain very little or no trust point. We need to realize that people don’t just trust; rather, they choose to trust. And the choice to trust is usually the product of a decision making process.

In his seminar article, The Decision to Trust, published in the September 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review, Robert F. Hurley stated that by understanding the mental calculations behind the decision whether or not to trust, managers can create an environment in which trust flourishes. He went on to identify the following ten trust factors at play in the truster’s decision making process:

  • Risk Tolerance

Those who are natural risk takers tend to trust easily than risk avoiders. Culture has a lot of influence on why some people trust easily while others do not. For example, Americans culture tends to encourage risk-taking and has therefore produced more risk takers and people who trust easily. Hurley notes that the same cannot be said of the Japanese.

  • Level of Adjustment

Psychology has shown that how well-adjusted a person is defines the amount of time he needs to build trust. Poorly adjusted personalities tend to see the world as hostile and therefore see threats in almost every situation. It naturally takes a longer period of interaction to get them to trust, whereas well-adjusted persons are much more open to trust earlier.

  • Relative Power

The more authority or power a person has over others, the more he is likely to trust. This is because he has the power to sanction anyone who violates his trust. But one without authority is likely to be less comfortable trusting because of his lack of power to reward or punish. People of low power consider factors such as integrity and intentions of others before deciding to trust.

  • Security

When a person sees that what could be the worst case in a situation is not so scary, he may find it easy to trust. The reverse is the case when it seems evident that the bottom is falling out. Perhaps this explains why public trust in the world is at its lowest point now, when everything about the future of our world seems so hopeless.

  • Number of Similarities

Hurley notes that in deciding how much trust to give to someone, people often begin by tallying up their similarities and differences. And these may include common values such as work ethic, membership of a defined group such as a local church or even gender, and shared personality traits in the form of ambition and extraversion.

  • Alignment of Interests.

People trust when they know the other will serve their interests. In PR, we are expected to serve the interest of both our organization and the public. When this is demonstrated by the management through good corporate governance and in our messages, it is easier to win the trust of stakeholders.

  • Benevolent Concern

Genuine concern for the welfare and protection of others builds trust any day. When people know you will fight for, or protect, them if they run into trouble, you are likely to win their trust.

  • Capability

Capability denotes competence. PR people must know that you cannot message your way into trust; rather, you behave your way into it. Organizational performance is key to a trusting relationship with stakeholders. Every investor wants a handsome return on investment; employees need a good pay and condition of service; the government wants her taxes paid and the community expects its needs to be met. Just as it is impossible to carve a rotten wood, no PR effort can win the trust of stakeholders for organizations that are not competent in delivering on their missions and meeting the expectations of stakeholders.

  • Predictability and Integrity

A person’s decision to trust another or an organization is often founded on the integrity and dependability of the other party. When an individual or an organization says one thing and does another, trust is often lost. Trust only blossoms when people walk their talks.

  • Level of Communication          

Open and honest communication supports the decision to trust; whereas, poor communication kills it. Researches and cases in Crisis Communication have proven this to be true.

According to Robert Hurley, the first three factors are the result of the truster’s personality, culture and experience and therefore have little to do with the person asking for trust. The other seven are the thumbscrews we can turn or adjust to win the trust of others.

Why Trust Matters in Public Relations

Back in 2014, Dr. Ansgar Zerfass and Muschda Sherzada presented an award-winning paper at the 17th International Public Relations Research Conference in Florida, USA which revealed how Public Relations should contribute to the success of organizations.

They stated that CEOs and board members expect PR and Communication professionals to facilitate business processes by motivating employees, informing customers and suppliers and generating public attention toward organizations. They also expect us to build immaterial assets, such as: corporate culture, brands and reputation; adjust organizational strategies by identifying opportunities and integrating public concerns; and secure room for maneuver by managing relationships and crises.

None of these can be achieved without trust. We need trust to motivate employees to put in their best and embrace organizational citizenship. It is crucial in generating public attention which is the result of good publicity made possible by a trusting relationship and support of media practitioners. Immaterial assets can only be built when an organization has earned enormous social capital from a positive perception of its stakeholders. The opportunity to adjusting organizational strategies is the fruit of trust of the PR department by top management. It is granted to PR professionals who demonstrate competence by providing the needed environmental intelligence for strategic decision making. Trust is woven into the very fabric of what we do. It is the grease in the wheel of Public Relations work.

Building Trust into the PR Process

Managing Public Relations effectively in a low trust environment may not be so difficult after all. All that PR professionals need to do is to embed the principles of trust into the PR process from formative research, programming, and implementation to evaluation, ensuring that the PR strategies adopted, and the PR techniques chosen, minister to current realities and contain the seeds of trust.

I believe the best way to achieve that is to do the following:

  1. Begin with Self Analysis

Ask yourself, as a PR professional, do I have the character, motives and the capabilities that enable me to trust myself, and others to trust me?

The key elements of character are respect, fairness, responsibility and integrity. Others are courage, generosity, keeping commitments, honesty, loyalty and humility.

Character is that key element of trust that helps the PR practitioner influence and change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of clients, superiors, colleagues and stakeholders in his/her favour. Perhaps this explains why Aristotle said that trust may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.

Motives have their foundation in character. It is the reason for doing something. According to Stephen M. R. Covey, “the motive that inspires the greatest trust is genuine caring – caring about people, caring about purposes, caring about the quality of what you do, caring about society as a whole.”

Capacity is the means through which you produce the desired results in your work. In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey captures its main components in the acronym “TASK”, which represents Talents, Attitudes, Skills, Knowledge and Style. He explains that talents are our natural gifts and strengths. Attitudes represent our paradigm, our ways of seeing as well as our way of being. Skills are our proficiencies, the things we can do well. Knowledge represents our learning, insight, understanding, and awareness. Style is our unique approach and personality.

The character, motive and capability of players in the Public Relations Department or Agency sets the tone for what it can achieve in the Public Relations process and forms the foundation for trust within the department or agency and from top management or clients.

  1. Know Your Trust-Scores

Before you think of launching any PR programme, it is important you know your personal and organizational trust-scores. This implies that trust should be measured at the outset and at the end of PR programmes, especially when the focus of such is to influence or change the attitudes, opinions or behavior of stakeholders for your organization or clients. And you may start by designing a questionnaire using the trust dimension statements of Grunig Relationship Instrument.

The whole idea of finding your personal and organizational trust scores is to help you identify where you or your organization is weak on trust in the eyes of your stakeholders so you can work to restore it before it becomes a problem.

  1. Enlist and Train the CEO as Chief Engagement Officer.

The current level of trust for CEOs may be low, but they play the critical role of facilitating the PR process. Getting him to play the new role of Chief Engagement Officer helps the process even more. He gets to know where the shoe pinches, and that opens up the path of mutual understanding between him and the Public Relations Department, especially on budget issues.

Training and assigning the CEO the role is one sure way of building trust into the PR process. When he communicates a consistent message with stakeholders, he demonstrates integrity; when he assumes full responsibility for the success of the organization with a strong display of accountability, he demonstrate dependability; when he personally and visibly shows care for staff and other stakeholders, benevolence is revealed; and when he understands the business and sets a clear vision and goals, manages issues effectively and delivers on the mission of the organization, he demonstrates competence. These leave a halo of trust on his person and on the organization.

Rita Linjuan Men,  a professor of Public Relations and Assistant Director of Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center offers the following suggestions on how PR professionals can harness the power of the CEO as the Chief Engagement Officer for their organizations:

  • Educate the CEO about their vital roles in organizational internal communication. CEOs should be aware of how their styles and quality of communication can influence organizational perceptions, employee morals and engagement.
  • Assist CEOs in developing a suitable, unique, and consistent communication style, which is congruent with CEO’s personality, character and leadership style, and organizational culture and climate.
  • Prepare CEOs with key messages that are aligned with business goals and objectives and tailored for each audience.
  • Equip CEOs with effective communication tools. This includes traditional tools, such as face to face channels, print publications, emails as well as new technological tools such as blogs, intranet, social networking sites, instant messengers, and video / tele-conferences.
  • Encourage CEOs to be open-minded, embrace changes and build a prominent and visible social media presence.
  • Develop metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of internal CEO communication.

Rita’s suggestions focus on making the CEO the Chief Engagement Officer for employees, but I am certain they will serve other stakeholders as well.

  1. Use PR strategies and tools that go with the times.

Public Relations strategy is the general approach used to achieve a campaign objective. I believe that adopting employee and influence relations strategies either on their own or as part of the strategies will promote the effectiveness of a PR programme in times of low trust.

Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer reveals that employee, on the average, are trusted 16 points more than CEOs on messaging around employee/customer relations, financial earnings, crises, innovation, industry and societal issues. It therefore makes good sense to adopt employee relations strategy when a PR programme involves such issues.

Traditional media use to give credibility to PR messages, but this may no longer be the case since their trust level has plummeted. It is now seen by the public as part of elite that has disappointed them, according to the 2017 Trust Barometer. Rather, 60% of people now trust a person like themselves, 60% trust technical experts and another 60% trust academic experts. This makes influencer relations strategy and its associated channels and techniques the ideal approach in these times of low trust. In an interview with PR intelligence magazine recently, Jerry Sawyerr, Nigeria’s country manager for Weber Shandwick noted that Public Relations practice is now more about how you position your clients, services or products to get endorsed by relevant publics so much that someone other than yourself is willing to speak on your behalf without being sponsored to do so. That is influencer relations management at its best.

  1. Never Ignore Transparency

Transparency denotes openness and accountability in sharing information with stakeholders.        Stakeholders who are kept in the loop about where and why an organization is moving in a particular direction are more likely to trust more than those kept in the dark.

Every stakeholder has certain expectations of an organization.  Trust is likely to hang in the balance when they cannot fathom whether these expectations will be met or not.

Perhaps, the best way to build transparency into the PR process is to exhibit clarity, consistency, credibility, conversation, cooperation, collaboration and connection when communicating and relating with stakeholders.

  1. Measure your PR efforts and report results.

When you measure and report the effectiveness of your PR efforts, you begin to demonstrate the value PR brings to the table in your organization. This does not only nail the coffin of doubts others may have had about the value of PR, it also demonstrates your competence in your field and enhances trust for Public Relations.

It is important to note here that wrong measures such as Advertising Values Equivalents (AVEs) will not do the magic. Measuring outtakes – the level of understanding of your messages by the publics as intended, will not do either. It is in measuring the impact of your PR efforts in creating awareness for your organization, its products or services, in changing the attitudes, opinions and behaviours of stakeholders positively toward it; and in promoting the attainment of the organization’s objectives that count.

In conclusion, it is important to note that in environments of low trust people build resistance to PR programmes and messages that come from those they distrust. It  takes an understanding of why people trust to design and implement PR programmes that break through the  armour of distrust to touch the hearts of the target audience. This does not mean that tested PR strategies and techniques are to be discarded. Rather it means that we need to add new strategies and their associated channels and techniques that will best neutralize the distrust and permit a seamless flow of the PR/communication process in order to achieve the desired results.