March 25, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

A different kind of “trust fall”: what does the collapse of trust mean for PR?

A different kind of “trust fall”: what does the collapse of trust mean for PR?

One of the most-anticipated reports in the PR space dropped recently, and the lede was conversely both unsurprising and alarming. Edelman’s Trust Barometer, the firm’s annual assessment of public trust in the four institutional categories of business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), media, and government, states bleakly that the public’s trust in all four has “declined broadly.”

Over the years that Edelman has been publishing the Trust Barometer, it has uncovered varying degrees of trust shifts—from earned media’s rise as more trustworthy than advertising, to peers ranking over authorities, to the declaration that trust is a component inherent to business success. In 2015 we learned that “trust is essential to innovation.” If it then follows that innovation is important to economic health and job creation, we’re in a bit of trouble, because the headline for 2017 is “Trust in Crisis.”

The results from the 2017 report are alarming, and they will have an impact on the practice of public relations—not just in the US, but globally, and across all practice groups. Depending on how deeply rooted these sentiments are, it’s possible that the PR business could be facing a period of radical transformation.

Study results reflect a huge gap between “the informed public,” (defined as: ages 25-64, college-educated, top 25 percent of household income within country surveyed, significant media consumption) and the “mass population” (all population not included in “informed public”). This gap is not confined to just one or two countries—it is a global phenomenon.

Here are more some of the findings:

  • The mass population distrusts institutions in 20 of the 28 countries surveyed.
  • All four institutions covered experienced a drop a trust.
  • Of the four institutions covered, two fall below the “neutral” mark, meaning they are largely distrusted. Which two? The media and government.
  • Media’s decline in trust was the steepest.
  • The largest trust gaps are in the United States (21-point gap), the United Kingdom (19-point gap), and France (18-point gap).
  • Peers are now considered just as credible as experts.
  • Ironically, the institution with the lowest trust level—government—is the one called on to make changes:
    • 82 percent want more regulation on the pharmaceutical industry
    • 70 percent say they want taxes on unhealthy foods
    • 53 percent say that financial regulations haven’t done enough
  • CEO credibility is at an “all-time low”

If trust is “essential to innovation” as the 2015 Trust Barometer found, are there any countries that reported trust in their institutions? Over all four categories of institutions, there were only three countries that the survey showed trust in all four: China, India, and Indonesia.

What this means for the practice of public relations

There is an awful lot to unpack in the data reported, but the big points that PR practitioners should probably pay attention to are the media distrust levels, and who individuals do trust. These are the two areas that will likely have the most direct effect on how public relations programs are structured and executed.

A decline in the trust in the media means the impact of earned media will be blunted, depending on the audience targeted. If your target audience is wholly contained within the “informed public,” an earned media component will likely still have an impact. If it’s the mass population you’re looking to connect with, know going into it that you’ll need far more than an earned media program to reach them effectively.

This leads to the question of just who are the effective spokespeople and/or influencers. Don’t necessarily look to experts—they are almost as suspect as institutions. Peers carry just as much, if not more, weight and credibility.

As mentioned above, virtually every practice group type is affected by this data. Public affairs as a practice has a lot to be concerned about, both domestically and globally. Healthcare and pharma do too. Corporate PR should take a close look at the trust in business—and so should internal communications.

While it would usually be unwise to invest too much into just one survey, there is plenty of other evidence to back up Edelman’s findings. The practice of public relations relies on identifying trusted voices and outlets to communicate with publics. When trust collapses, it makes PR far more difficult.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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