Where Has All The Trust Gone?

Americans, we the people, have become a distrustful lot of late, hardly surprising news given our Recessionary new world order that is rammed home daily in headlines detailing the failures, cover-ups, and worse, of corporate America and its leaders.

Enter the 10th annual Edelman Trust Barometer 2010, not co-incidentally published (Jan. 26) during Davos, which found that, "Trust is now an essential line of business to be developed and delivered. Trust in business has improved, but the patient has a long road to go for a full recovery," according to Richard Edelman, president and CEO, Edelman Public Relations. "The increase in trust in business belies its fragility."

As a result, public relations practitioners find themselves operating in a new world order where, for the first time, the Barometer reports "trust and transparency are as important to corporate reputation as the quality of products and services. In fact, says an Edelman news release, "In the U.S., those two attributes rank higher than product quality -- and far outrank financial returns, which sits at or near the bottom of 10 criteria."



Wither CEOs?

According to the Barometer, the credibility of CEOs showed "notable recovery," jumping nine points in the U.S. (from 17% in '09 to 26%). Despite this rise, CEOs still rank at the bottom of the list of trusted spokespeople in the U.S. Even employees (28%) and government officials (26%) are more credible.

As a result PR players should no longer expect their communications campaigns to succeed by touting the claims of largely commoditized products / services that are extolled by senior executives, celebrities, or even ordinary people like us.

So, whom can we turn to? The answer is not good news for marketers seeking to leverage the social mediasphere, where the credibility of one's peers or social media network friends fell almost half, from 45% to 25%, since '08 (methinks we have discovered the source of so many of those glowing reviews). The potency of "consumer spokespeople" like me also dropped significantly, from 45% (2009) to 39%.

What Do You Trust?

It turns out that consumers (we the people) are becoming more demanding and discerning of corporate and product values. No longer does offering "high-quality products and services" and displaying "transparent and honest business practices" merit our trust. In increasing numbers, people want to know just what kind of behavior to expect from companies and how they are aligned with the greater good.

The Trust Barometer points to academics, experts and industry analysts as, reportedly, the most credible voices for information about a company. Reports from industry analysts and (read this carefully) articles in business magazines remain the most credible sources of information about a company, at 47% and 42%, respectively. That presents a slap in the face to much of the over-hyped blogosphere, although there are significant exceptions, when seeking to elevate one's thought leadership potential.

However, the credibility of mainstream media, including television, newspapers, and radio, continues to wane. In the U.S., the credibility of television news dropped 23 points in just two years (from 43 points in 2008 to 20 points in 2010). The credibility of radio news and newspapers fell 20 points over that period.

Technology, Our Savior

In a time of diminished expectations and a challenging future, the flame continues to burn brightest for science to come to our rescue. Technology remains the single most trusted industry sector -- 79% say they trust tech to do what is right, up from 76% in 2009.

Net, net. PR can no longer expect to rely on persuasive communications campaigns to carry the day. Nor can senior counselors train their client CEOs to project the right image and body language when on camera.

The public relations profession will have to take a stand with "we the people" and counsel their clients as to how to better align their practices to foster the greater good of society. This presents both a daunting challenge and a great opportunity. We will watch the outcome with bated breath.

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