The 15th issue of the so-called Trust Barometer is a masterpiece in public relations strategy by its author, PR giant Edelman. But it’s something the industry should question, not just about the cunning of the world’s largest public relations firm, but about the industry’s embrace of trust and other euphemisms for influence.
The pioneering PR counselor Al Golin can be credited for bringing trust to our attention. His 2004 book, Trust and Consequences, offered PR and comms tradespeople a currency for their craft. In the same year The Arthur W. Page Society, of which I was a ten-year member, penned its own tome and subsequent studies on trust. Other associations have followed suit, notably the Institute for Public Relations, on whose board I sat for four years.
But trust has been taken too far, and practitioners of influence are thinking their work is too wonderful.
Trust is the perfect ruse for the unregulated PR trade; it is what legions of unlicensed practitioners like to think of as what they do. But trust is not the base objective, as even Edelman’s mission attests. The real point, as, for example, the agency pledges, is “to influence attitudes and behaviors in a complex world.”
This is code for winning hearts and minds, for sheer though subtle manipulation, and it suggests that trust is a mere strategy for doing so. In fact, it’s a mission that’s rooted more truly in propaganda as described by PR godfather Edward Bernays than in two-way symmetry as advanced by the communication scholar James Grunig.
Edelman will surely disagree. It trumpets, by example, breakthrough work for Dove – campaigns that offer mutual advantage for the P&G brand, aging customers of the soap, and the environment alike. Except that the principle purpose of the program is, first, to make money, and, second, to make wrinkles cool and oily ducklings clean. It is the profit motive, not compassion, that originally spurs P&G and Edelman’s clever architects, not otherwise.
What I hear from PR pros touting such things as trust, reputation, authenticity, and values is not sage counsel and not an approach to keeping a client in a customer’s good graces. What I hear is something more akin to a press agent’s promise: Trust me, babe. And beyond the distrust it engenders, at least in me, what I suspect is that the sellers of these services may be the actual cause for the crisis, as measured by barometers and other boasts, not the solution.
Trust is key, I agree. But what has come about is the self-nomination by influence professionals to fix it, and CEOs have largely accepted the premise that they can. In droves, they have turned to CMOs, CCOs, and HR chiefs to fix reputations, regain trust, ensure authenticity, and invigorate values. But these are derivative of good works and wise leadership, not delivered outcomes or things to tweak. Idiotically, they have indulged dashboards of such things when, in fact, their traceable effects are invariably indirect and diffuse. As well, they have caved to counselors who insist that transparency must be total, hardly realizing that secrets are crucial to their competitive calculus.
Here is Edelman’s pitch to executives considering the agency’s services: “Protecting consumer data, respecting employee rights, and managing a responsible supply chain are three behaviors that will have positive impact on public perceptions, improve a business’s integrity, and therefore build trust. Trust has always driven action and enabled successful long-term relationships. Now trusted businesses must go one step further and create the context for positive widespread change.”
The implicit message is that a PR agency can do these things. And perhaps it should. But any function of influence — whether marketing, sales, PR, advertising, lobbying or even law — cannot separate itself from its fundamental feature: advocacy. Why then should organizations trust advocates (read: salespeople) to protect consumer data, respect employee rights, and manage responsible supply chains when their core competence is hyperbole?
The answer to trust is to re-double a commitment to operational excellence, not communications. Attend to the business of the business by replacing expressions of trust with actions and follow-through.
This is not to say that communications should be sidelined. Far from it. There is a critical need for communicators to help organizations advance their agendas in crowded markets. But let’s be honest about what PR and communications are really here to do. And let’s be honest about what the function can and cannot fix. There are, Al Golin might agree, consequences to its abuse.
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