Using PR to Build Trust in Tough Times

Over the past several weeks and months, industry gurus have offered an abundance of advice about how to refocus and weather the current economic tsunami and keep management or clients from cutting back on PR programming.

If you think I’m going to suggest that PR and marketing are not where you should seek to belt tighten, you're right. But what I really want to focus on is trust and “keeping the faith” with stakeholders and employees during these troubled times.
The challenges of building trust have never been greater. The Wall Street meltdown, bail out, and lowest all-time approval rating for our government have lead to a prevailing sense of betrayal felt by voters, consumers, customers, workers and investors. We are living in a unique time where an unfortunate confluence of economic, social and political issues has eroded people’s trust in companies and institutions.

Public relations is the communications discipline that is critical in this environment, because the most credible source of information about a company or brand today is coming from people talking to people – peer-to-peer dialogue among stakeholders sharing personal experiences. According to Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for New Media, smart companies recognize that “PR is the new advertising and conversation is the new PR.”
While every tool in a marketer’s arsenal plays an important role, relationship building is increasingly important when people are not sure who and what to depend on. This is best accomplished through consistent communications and peer dialogue, not bold declarations. Authenticity of message and the reliability of the communications channel also are essential to telling customers, investors and workers your organization is ethical, credible and can be trusted. Authenticity of message starts with a company’s actions and must be the responsibility of everyone in it. It’s not enough to advertise that your company is to be trusted. Most of us learned at a young age that “actions speak louder than words,” and this continues to be true when it comes to building and maintaining reputation, brand loyalty and stakeholder support.

Best-in-class organizations should use this time to identify emerging issues and take stock of rapidly changing consumer beliefs and how this impacts how and what they communicate. But at the same time, acting swiftly and decisively to maintain stakeholder confidence does not mean knee-jerk reactions. In other words, this is not a good time to cut back on communications. Instead, it is a time for an intelligent assessment of the impact your programs are having on business results.

Jeff Hayzlett, Chief Business Development officer from Kodak, recently said at an industry event that in bad times, he’s going to do more in public relations and marketing. He talked about doubling down and focusing on where he’s going to get the best value from his communications partners, leveraging new technology tools and communications channels for maximum business results. Here, too, is where PR is especially effective. At a time when there is great scrutiny on marketing budgets, PR can maximize dollars and further add essential credibility in these critical times. It is well documented that maintaining or increasing public relations activity during a recession can improve market share and make you stronger for better times.

So now is the time to get aggressive, not the time to sit and wait it out. Whether you are a popular consumer brand, an industrial widget or a cause seeking support for a point of view, direct additional energies into PR marketing. Public relations professionals are trained to interpret and respond to issues and opportunities that affect trust and relationship building, particularly in times of great change. Assure those you want to reach that while the marketplace is rocky, you are rock solid. It will pay dividends, trust me.

This article was written by Deborah Radman, SVP, Director of PR, CKPR. She can be reached at