Tag Archives: organisation

Is it possible to build trust through PR?

Today Robert Philips made an important, yet controversial point concerning PR and trust in his article PR is dead: Public leadership is the future in PR Week.

He said the following:

“PR has abused and exhausted trust. The restoration of trust is not a function of PR. Trust is not a message but an outcome. It is complex and fragile. There is no single action, no silver bullet campaign, to resolve the trust deficit. Trust is hard-fought, hard-earned, hard-won every day – by actions, not words. If trust is the desired outcome, then PR is not the appropriate sol-ution. Beware the PR firm that talks and promises otherwise.”

Although there are some brilliant points made here, let me generally disagree. PR is the bridge between an organisation and its stakeholders (or at least it should be). It helps the organisation understand what their stakeholders’ expectations are and how they should behave to be successful. On the other hand, stakeholders can gain valuable information about the organisation through PR providing information and explaining the organisation’s motivations and actions. This is essentially what a lots of PR definitions mean by ’mutual understanding’. And yes, most of the times this process is carried out utilising the written or spoken word. Following on this line of thought, if there was not this bridge (=PR) between organisation and stakeholders, there would be no way to make a connection between them and there would be no way to understand each other. In other words, there would be no way to trust each other.

Reputation, a huge part of which is trust, is defined by John Doorley and Fred Garcia in ‘Reputation Management’ (2nd ed., 2011) as

 REPUTATION = SUM OF IMAGES = Performance + Behaviour + Communication

All of the above are “critical components of reputation”, they say.

Accordingly, although it is true that PR in itself will not make an organisation trusted, if the trustworthy behaviour and performance of an organisation is not communicated effectively and clearly towards its stakeholders – using PR and words – trust will never develop or never will be maintained. In a nutshell, if stakeholders do not know about that an organisation is trustworthy, it is not trustworthy.

Indeed, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014, communicating frequently and honestly on the state of the business and listening to customer needs and feedback are key to build trust. Thus, PR can build trust – if used well.

edelman trust

Finally, watch a thought-provoking video about the importance of trust below.

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Why CSR programmes will never be ideal

So what’s in the dominant paradigm nowadays on the land of PR? The systems theory, that is! Are you still here? Please don’t leave! It may sound like a bit far-fetched term for the first sight, but in fact it is a very useful framework that can be applied to many disciplines to explain how things work in practice. In PR it relates to its function. In her influential book Public Relations: Concepts, Practice and Critique, Jacquie L’Etang (2009) describes the systems metaphor as an approach that “sees the world as a living, interacting organism” where PR constantly helps organisations to adapt to their environment (p. 71). In PR it simply means that organisations and publics need to interact effectively with the goal of reaching mutual understanding and benefiting both sides. That is to say, they need to interact symmetrically to develop an ideal relationship. This resonates with Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) four communications models where the two-way symmetrical model is regarded as ideal.

systems theory t shirt

The fact that this is the prominent best practice organisation-publics relationship model in the UK is well reflected in the definitions of the most influential trade bodies. The CIPR states that PR’s aim is “to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”, while the PRCA definition suggests that PR is „to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various publics”.

What strikes me in this theory is how impossible it is to put it into practice. It is simply because organisations have numerous publics that are highly segmented. It is impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs or meet each public’s expectations without hurting the organisation’s interest.

Corporate social responsibility campaigns are great examples of this.

Let’s look at Unilever. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, declared in a recent International Business Times article that the systems approach is the way forward.

“We need to begin now, to work across the value chain and across the systems we touch and which touch us. This is what we are doing in our own business, as well as in collaboration with others…catalysing global business action on a focussed list of priorities.” -Paul Polman

Polman begins his article by noting that extreme poverty, unemployment and climate change are among the most pressing issues today’s society has to face. He suggests that businesses need to recognise that they are obliged to play their role in tackling these problems. This is a valuable suggestion, which bears some problems, however, both on a practical and a theoretical level.


It is a conscious decision from organisations that how they would like to give back to their (social) environment. PR practitioners spend an awful lot of time and effort to develop a CSR strategy and to find out what kind of CSR programme would be the most beneficial for their organisation. Yes, for the organisation. I might be a cynical budding PR practitioner, as some would certainly hiss at me here, but I am sure no CSR programme has been developed based on objective criteria of where help is the most needed. It would be impossible anyway, because it is a subjective view whether, say, terminally ill children or newly diagnosed dementia patients are more in need of help, or whether money should be invested in preventing climate change and thus help future generations or should be invested in improving sanitation facilities in India and thus help the current generation. As Polman writes organisations has to write a “focussed list of priorities”. My view is that priority list will be highly selective and subjective and will be prepared in accordance with the interest of the organisation.

Unilever’s Project Sunlight initiative has various components. Just having a glance at one of them for the sake of an example, the ‘Destroy germs and create smiles’ campaign associated with Domestos improves sanitation facilities in 9 countries: Gambia, Ghana, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan and Vietnam. How were these countries selected? Are they really the ones that need improvements in sanitation the most? Is it improvements in sanitation that they need the most?

Don’t misunderstand me. It is an absolutely valuable and valid CSR campaign that probably improves thousands of people’s life. Obviously, a company cannot support everyone and everything in the world because it would hurt its business goals (and would go bankrupt). The point is that systems theory supposes that an organisation and ALL its publics can mutually depend on each other. It is idealistic, however, because when it comes to CSR campaigns for example, an organisation has to decide which publics to favour over one other.

This should be acknowledged in order to have a clear picture on how exactly organisations and publics interact and how organisations hold the power to decide about the level of interaction with each public. Thanks for staying with me! Any views are more than welcome in the comment box below.

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