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February, 2005:

PR's Problem, or
Whom Do You Trust?

continued

Survey Says:
More People Trust Company Web Sites
Than Believe The CEOs and CFOs

This may reflect the same kind of credibility gulf that separates newspapers from television news, a distinction without real differences beyond delivery and volume. If so, it is a widening gap and it may suggest some ideas for PR people working to build trust, such as demoting the focus on individuals in favor of positioning the entire company’s easy accessibility and overall value – both core attributes of effective website communications.

Remember how many people said just a few years ago they would never shop online? The pace of change can be maddeningly slow to those in the midst of it, but surely the evolution of web commerce must be apparent to almost everyone by now. The power is shifting from sellers to buyers and, in response, people are forming new ideas about trust and credibility. That’s good for shoppers, but will it also be good for consumers of ideas and information?

“Public relations specialists are scrambling to adjust to a time in which the Internet revolution and a boom in alternative media sources are rewriting the parameters of the communications industry and challenging traditional sources of authority. So, despite an avalanche of freely available information, the truth is becoming harder to discern,” charges O’Brien in the Times.

The blogosphere, podcasting and other micro-media phenomena are changing the nature of human dialogue, enabled by advances in technology. But from my perspective, the truth remains the same. I don’t believe it is any harder (or easier) to discern the truth today than it was when Johnny was still doing afternoons on ABC.

The same is true of trust. People want to trust, they want to believe in something that they think is right. It’s an inborn instinct for all of us. Sometimes we discover we’ve misplaced our trust, but we almost always want to trust again.

There’s no better proof of this than the much-documented career of Carly Fiorina, recently departed CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She put her vision of a growth company forward and signed up people to trust her strategy, including buying Compaq. Earlier, at AT&T, she was brilliant in finding people to trust her vision of an old-line manufacturing business that could be transformed into a high-tech, high-growth Internet high flier.

Unfortunately, impatience often accelerates the loss of trust, which seems to have been the case at H-P. But Ms. Fiorina’s six-year run was twice as long as the average big company boss, subject as they all are to the relentless cycle of quarterly earnings guidance and actuals. And there’s no doubt plenty of people are still willing to place trust in this energetic, intelligent leader once she resets the clock and begins sharing a fresh vision.

Good PR results from establishing and extending trust.

Trust and credibility are not the results of good PR – the opposite equation is true. Good PR is a result of establishing and extending trust. People willingly invest or withhold their trust based on their own ideas, instincts and goals. Leaders consciously inspire the trust of others by creating a shared vision of what’s necessary or possible. Good PR practitioners help to define the vision in terms of people’s ideas, instincts and goals, and then they bring the vision to the attention of a larger group of people.

Since most of my PR training took place at AT&T, I was amused by Timothy O’Brien’s observation that the “tension between proponents of (Edward) Bernays-like manipulation and (Arthur) Page-like transparency has existed in the business ever since.” Bernays himself repented his sins repeatedly, including at appearances before hundreds of Page’s acolytes at AT&T PR such as myself. Tying these two old-timers through “the government’s psychological warfare and information campaigns in World War II” as the genetic antecedents of today’s big PR firms operated by Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic, Publicis et. Al. is a bit tenuous, even before you start to mix in advertising, and just a bit manipulative on the part of the Times.

It’s a bit like linking today’s dopey television game shows such as “Blind Date,” “Elimidate” and “Date My Mom” with “Who Do You Trust?” because Johnny’s game show appeared on stations that were owned at the time by big corporations that have since been bought up by even bigger corporations (e.g., ABC-TV and Disney.)

Although (or perhaps because) there’s a lot of room for disagreement on other points too numerous to list, I recommend the Times piece. And I’d be happy to hear your perspective as well – whom do you trust?
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