Tag Archives: reputation

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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Somerset flooding: how it washes away reputations

We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis”, said once  American Express CEO Ken Chenault. This is also why it is extremely important to react quickly, sparing not even a minute when a crisis breaks. This is one of the most important principles of crisis management, states Doorley and Garcia in their 2011 book Reputation Management.

The now on-going case of unfortunate flooding in England and the Environment Agency might be a great example to show the reputation of an organisation “is determined less by the severity of the crisis – the underlying event – than by the timeliness and quality of its response to the crisis” (Doorley & Garcia, p. 307).

uk flood

Today Lord Smith, Environment Agency chairman, paid visit to the most affected area, the Somerset Levels, first time since the area was slipped under water more than a month ago. He was not welcome. He received harsh criticism that made leading headlines in the British media. Local farmers refused to answer reporters of what they think of Lord Smith because “it would be inappropriate to say in front of the camera”. Local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called him a ’coward’ and said: “I will tell him what I bloody well think of him – he should go, he should walk…This little git has never even been on the telephone to me. When I find out where he is, I will give it to him.” Journalists and locals present at the visit suggested he should have resigned for mismanagement of the flooding crisis.

So why is this extremely harsh criticism? From a crisis management perspective, It could be a good move that Lord Smith went to the Somerset Levels to show care and to reassure locals that the situation is in control and to ensure residents everything possible was done to tackle the crisis. However, the problem is clear. He absolutely missed one of the two basic principles: timeliness. And so the incident-driven crisis developed into an issue-driven one.

The Somerset Levels are under water since late last year. Since then local residents and local authorities (including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger) got exhausted by the series of flood surges and had time to identify the Environment Agency and notably its chairman as the scapegoat for the extensive flooding. They feel “let alone” by Lord Smith who worked mainly behind the scenes since floodings started.

Public opinion seems to be that the Environment Agency failed to dredge the rivers and that caused water levels to rise (despite independent experts state that dredging the rivers hadn’t had a considerable effect because we are talking about a too huge amount of water). No proper communications effort was made from the Environment Agency or Lord Smith to stop this view spread. And voila! For now it escalated to a stage that anything Lord Smith says is regarded as wrong by the public and they want him to resign.

My anticipation is that it is unlikely he will be able to turn back time. We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis…

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