Posted At: April 29, 2009 1:10 PM
by Mary Allison Milford
“U.S. Business: Trusted Since 2002” could have been the business sector’s slogan for the past seven years. But now, according to the 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer, America’s trust in business is at a historic low. Since the fall of Enron, faith in business had been building and belief in the free market holding strong. Now, with the auto industry in a meltdown and banks in crisis, America’s trust has faltered — by 20 percent.
According to the Trust Barometer, “In the home of capitalism, American trust in business to do what is right is now most comparable to that of the countries of ‘old Europe’ where trust levels have always been lower.”
There is one source of light to this grim picture. According to the Barometer, conversations with company employees, friends and peers are some of the most trusted sources. With the explosion of social media networks, blogs and microblogs, these peer-to-peer conversations have become expansive and seemingly limitless.
In a recent interview I conducted, Peter Himler, founder and principal of Flatiron Communications LLC and blog, The Flack, talked about the change in communication: “We’ve gone from top down to bottom up and now to sideways influence — peer to peer.”
In years past, Americans would gather around the television for the nightly news from the trusted Walter Cronkite. Now Brian Williams and Katie Couric have become background noise as Americans read blogs and Tweets to get the news from their “trusted” sources.
The blogosphere has become so vast that I am able to read about a recent crisis management success, then tab over and watch a video of my niece playing peek-a-boo. But with the enormity and freedom of bloggers comes a catch — “truth-in-blogging.”
According to Himler’s blog, “The explosion in the number of syndicated content producers (i.e., bloggers) has created havoc in the regulatory environment, and specifically at the FTC, which oversees truth in advertising.”
Now there is talk about regulating what bloggers say about products that are given to them to endorse.
“The media ecosystem has atomized,” Himler said. “Most bloggers don’t have the time to do the research and reporting that the New York Times would. Because today anyone can be a blogger, there is a lot of room for abuse. I’m not sure the bloggers can self police.”
Now it seems that our “trusted” bloggers are indeed flawed and even misleading.
This regulation might not be a bad thing, however. According to Edelman’s Barometer, 61 percent of Americans believe government should intervene to regulate industry or nationalize companies to restore public trust. Himler agrees. “The government turned a blind eye to regulation. The pendulum is swinging back towards consumer protectionism,” he said.
So what is public relations’ role in rebuilding trust between business and consumer? Public relations must continue its tradition of ethical practices and set a positive example for both business and consumer as good communicators with strong instincts.
“The best PR people have good instincts,” Himler said. “They know what to say, they know how to act — that can’t be taught. They understand the media ecosystem.”
American consumers must do the same to regain their trust with business. It is important to use your instincts when absorbing information. Because there is so much information out there, it is partly the consumer’s responsibility to filter news and information. We cannot rely solely on regulation from the government.
In return, American businesses must improve their communication skills. “Nothing can replace good communication skills. You must have the ability to help people understand complex things,” Himler said. It is a PR practitioner’s job not only to disseminate information, but to understand which channels of communication work best.
As a Kathy Bloomgarden blog post notes, Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca wrote in his most recent book, “A leader has to communicate. I’m not talking about running off at the mouth or spouting sound bites. I’m talking about facing reality and telling the truth.”
Over the past year, reality has hit the auto industry, banks and Americans in general. Leaders of industry have faltered and communicated misguiding information to their publics. It is time for businesses to be open and honest so reciprocal relationships can be made.
As always, public relations is about building relationships. Practitioners must cater to the client and consumer while staying true to their principles as well. In the end, every PR professional, business and consumer wants the same thing — to be trusted.