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February, 2005: PR's Problem, or Whom Do You Trust?

As a student of mass media, the recent passing of TV icon Johnny Carson gave me a lot to think about; he had a prodigious impact on the mass consciousness of mid- to late-20th century America. But a major article about the practice of public relations in the New York Times SundayBusiness section ("Spinning Frenzy: PR's Bad Press" by Timothy L. O'Brien login required) got me thinking about old Johnny in a much different way.

Like many Americans in the late 50s, I became aware of Johnny Carson when he hosted a really lame weekday game show that ran mid-afternoons on the ABC network.

“Who Do You Trust?” was aimed purely at housewives (still a significant demographic in 1959) and was really not much more than yet another radio show performed in front of cameras.

But much like the razor sharp wit of Groucho Marx transformed a cheesy quiz show called "You Bet Your Life" into something magically different, the young Carson's quick mind and expressive face took yet another stupid game show to another level.

Clearly, “Who Do You Trust?” brought Carson to national attention – even I got that as an eight-year-old. It certainly got him “The Tonight Show.” And, for the next 30 years, we all trusted him to be there, five nights a week, delivering that same self-deprecating brand of humor along with that oddly hip attitude we all sensed in the sly young emcee of “Who Do You Trust?”

In its obit for the PR profession, the New York Times asks gramatically “Whom Do You Believe?”

Trust was on my mind as I waded through the Times’ obituary for the profession of public relations, as accelerated by government use of PR agencies to position policy-related messages. It was not a pretty story.

Evermore grammatical, Times editors devoted a sizeable sidebar on the jump page of O’Brien’s analysis under a headline asking “Whom Do You Believe?” that summarizes a survey conducted recently by Edelman PR. Most of the results were not too surprising (beyond the deep shiver I experience every time I’m reminded how many people put their faith in TV.)

One mildly interesting point is that almost one in five people now name the Internet as the first source they turn to for trustworthy information. That’s almost the same number who turn first to newspapers and nearly twice the number who go to their radios.

But the real eye-opener for me was the third question, which probed the credibility people place in specific sources of information about a company. (This had very little to do with Armstrong Williams since it’s about companies, not schools, but was very interesting nonetheless.)

According to Edelman’s survey, advertising of all kinds is trusted by fewer than 10 percent. Only 8 percent said corporate ads were extremely or very credible. A scant 18 percent gave that level of confidence to information conveyed by CEOs and CFOs.

But here’s the gem – a full 24% actually said that they find information on company websites extremely or very credible – that’s a third more of these educated, high-income people than those who trust what the CEO says.

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