Did they ever trust us?
That’s the question IABC Chair Warren Bickford asks in response to my blog post, March 20, about the Léger poll that suggests more than half the people in Canada don’t trust professional communicators. 

Trust_grid_2Of the 22 professions measured, PR folk are the fourth least trusted professional group. Even lawyers fare better. Journalists, too, are trusted by less than half the population. Ouch!

The chart shows the trend, along with scores for  the most and least trusted professions. Not much variation over five years. Maybe, as Warren suggests, they never did trust us.

So what’s the deal here? Should the public trust professional communicators? If so, how do we make that happen? If not, what’s the point of our work? Besides paying for groceries.

So, let’s say that, along with buying groceries, communicators want to gain the public’s trust. Can we take our own good advice – do the things we urge our clients to do?

  • Be visible.
  • Listen to your audience.
  • Acknowledge people’s feelings.
  • Answer their questions.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Admit when you’re wrong.
  • Do what you say you will.
  • Remember that actions speak louder than words.

I think we know the answer. Let’s look at a few of the steps.

Be visible. The first action is to step out and talk about what we do and why we do it. Let
the public see that  "spin doctors" and "muckrakers" are dinosaurs. PR, done well, is not about hyperbole or avoiding the truth. Journalism, done well, is not about pointing out the bad things in society or glorifying conflict.  We know our work is to find out what people need to know or want to know and present it as clearly and accurately as we can. Let’s make that obvious by talking about what we’re doing. Let’s also stand up for those codes of ethics our professional associations promote, and apply some pressure to practitioners who cross the line.

For example, I know of a situation where, based on the contents of a news release, a newspaper printed an account of a meeting involving locals visiting a far off land. The next day, one of the alleged (and quoted) participants called the paper to state that the event never actually took place. Enraged, the reporter wrote an article about how the event was misrepresented, in which the PR woman admitted that, perhaps, the news release wasn’t exactly accurate. It was based on what was supposed to happen and sent out to meet the newspaper’s early deadline. The reporter didn’t verify. The PR woman didn’t verify. Honest mistake? Ethical violation? Either way, they both should have been slapped! I’m guessing each one learned an important lesson.

Listen to your audience. We need to get out there and talk to real people. Not our cosy colleagues. What do they think of our professions? Where do they get their impressions of us? How do they feel about our work? What would it take to make them trust us? Is trust even possible? How will we know when we get there? These are not questions pollsters are asking – not until we pay them to ask. We need to get out of the office and talk to people – not about the content of our communication, but about the nature, context and utility of it.

Acknowledge people’s feelings. Let’s look at the feelings that underlie trust and mistrust. Some emotional intelligence theorists suggest that all feelings boil down to "mad, sad, glad, or scared." So what’s the emotion? Do those who don’t trust us fear that they’re not getting the real story? That’s my take on it. Do I hear a good argument for angry or sad?

Answer their questions. What do people want to know about our professions? Apart from the usual whine about journalists, "Why don’t you ever write about good news?", my guess would be, "They don’t really want to know much." Maybe we need to let them know how we operate, so they can work with us to bring their interests and needs to the attention of people who can make a difference for them and, in the case of corporate communicators, for our employers. Maybe some of us already are doing this.

Tell the truth. Admit when you’re wrong.
Do what you say you will. I’m thinking these suggestions don’t need expansion.

Remember that actions speak louder than words. We communicators need to take our own medicine.  If,  on our own behalf or on behalf of our profession, we actively and visibly practise the habits we urge our clients and audiences to adopt, we’ll surely gather some goodwill along the way. We might even get better at our jobs, since we’ll actually be using our "products."

Will the public ever trust us as much as, say, firefighters? Maybe not. Maybe yes. Maybe it’s time to think big.

Coming next:  Disintermediation – and CEOs who blog.