PR Best Practices Can Restore Public Trust in the Post-Truth Era
By Julie Wright —President
It is not business as usual in the media industry.
Some say we’re in a post-truth era. One thing is for sure: the role and honesty of spokespeople, the press and state-sponsored fake news has us all talking. And, it turns out, this controversy has had an enormous impact on public trust.
Trust levels in the U.S. and around the world are measured by the Edelman Trust Barometer. This annual report provides an in-depth analysis of trust in the U.S. breaking it down by trust in the media, CEOs, businesses, experts, NGOs and more. This year, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed a crisis in trust in America. The deep plunge recorded year over year was akin to a stock market crash.
It found that 63 percent of the U.S. general population struggles to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake. Trust in U.S.-based companies dropped from 55 to 50 percent continuing a decline that began in 2014. Trust in NGOs fell from 58 to 49 percent.
This is the environment in which public relations professionals, their employers and clients are communicating. Information from most sources is greeted with skepticism or outright disbelief by the public.
So, here we are. The scarcest commodity in the U.S. today is trust.
Last week, I interviewed Lynn Walsh, project manager of the Trusting News project to find out how the media is working to restore trust with its readers, viewers and listeners. This week, I’m asking how PR pros can work to restore trust with the public?
The answer is to stick to PR best practices and good media relations fundamentals and to recommit ourselves to the crucial role that public relations best practices play in building and restoring trust.
Let’s Refresh on Media Relations’ Primary Goals
Media relations strategies typically start with two high-level goals in mind.
The first is to raise awareness of a brand’s story and messages with its target audiences through well-placed articles, features and other media mentions.
Since earned media cannot be bought, unlike paid media (advertising), it is more credible—with the public and with Google too. Have you noticed that news articles in major media outlets have a much higher search engine ranking? That’s because the websites that they’re published on have a much higher search engine authority, so Google ranks them higher. (This can cut both ways: it’s awesome when the news in such links is great, and terrible when it’s bad.)
The second goal is to influence perceptions and preserve or build an organization’s reputation.
This starts with ensuring media coverage is accurate and fair. It continues with proactive strategies to communicate a brand’s excellent financial performance, corporate social responsibility program, product innovation or corporate culture.
As brand storytellers, the PR team is approaching these communications as an ongoing process or narrative and not as a one-off event or announcement.
When both of these goals are achieved, the news stories topping your brand’s Google search results are the stories you’re most proud of and not the cringe-worthy ones. Plus, you maintain your organization’s trust with its stakeholders (customers, employees, constituents, vendors, partners, patients, donors—whoever you need to keep onside in order to operate effectively).
In short, PR’s first goal is to get you into the media spotlight and its second goal is to ensure, once you’re there, that you’re lit to show your best side so that your audience applauds, or at least understands, your behaviors and decisions versus throwing tomatoes at you.
Along the way, we apply media relations best practices: knowing what’s newsworthy, building good media relationships and being authentic, timely, accurate and transparent.
Truth and Accuracy are PR Best Practices
We are also ethical. Most PR professionals are members of the Public Relations Society of America. As such, we are expected to uphold the society’s professional code of ethics (PDF). This means that we are advocates for our clients and respect their confidential or privileged information, while also being honest, accurate and truthful in our representations to the public. We take responsibility for the authenticity of the information we represent in our communications and outreach.
It’s not an easy task. Public relations is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in America, and it’s not a thankful task to be the media spokesperson when the chips are down or the heat is on. (That’s one big reason why so many of us appreciate our thankful clients and employers so much.)
But, here’s the point of this refresher. Ethical PR that follows PR best practices like transparency, accuracy, authenticity and timely communication is what builds trust.
And trust matters. It has an ROI. There’s even a name for it: brand equity. When brands and people are trusted, they’re valued. When things go wrong, trusted people and brands get the benefit of the doubt. When you look these benefits, an investment in PR best practices makes incredibly good sense.
If this resonates with you as either a PR pro or someone who can influence a company’s PR strategy, I encourage you to fight for PR best practices, to remember that PR is not happy talk and spin. It is also tough talk and the hard work and soul searching that sometimes come when tough conversations are required with your stakeholders.
Remind your colleagues in the C-suite and at the board room table that when they hold strategic communications to the same high standard as you do, the public will hold your brand in higher regard. And when your brand consistently communicates with transparency and truthfulness, you’ll earn the public’s trust. Trusted brands have higher valuations because trust is a precious commodity. So, stand up for standards and stand up for trust.