Trust & Public Relations: What the Research Says

Public relations is in the trust-making business. What communications professionals do revolves around establishing and maintaining relationships. Yet it often appears that we public relations practitioners are not trusted ourselves. And when called upon to counsel clients on building or rebuilding trust, we don’t necessarily know the underlying research base—the science beneath the art of this complex phenomenon.

Dr. Brad Rawlins of Brigham Young University serves as section editor for Trust and PR Practice in the Institute for Public Relations’ Essential Knowledge Project, which is a guide to existing public relations research that translates this academic knowledge into practitioner’s language. Here are some major findings that Rawlins draws from the research base (supplemented online by an annotated bibliography identifying additional sources).

1.    Trust isn’t simple. Rawlins proposes a public relations-oriented definition that involves multiple dimensions: “Trust is one party’s willingness—shown by intention and behavior—to be vulnerable to another party based on confidence...that the other party is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest and open.” Scholarly literature and research further defines each of these dimensions in ways that can help guide the savvy public relations practitioner.

2.    Trust relates to credibility, which practitioners must have to serve clients well. Credibility is the confidence that a stakeholder has in what you and your organization say. Such confidence comes from the accuracy and truthfulness of received communications. Unfortunately, the data on credibility of PR practitioners are not encouraging. Experimental research has found that PR professionals and the organizations they represent are less credible than unidentified sources, which helps explain why such sources get prominent play in media coverage.

3.    Trust is critical to establishing and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders on whom the organization depends. Regression analysis has shown that the dimension of trust is the strongest predictor of consumer satisfaction. It is also the most central component of satisfactory relationships. This kind of trust goes beyond credibility, in that it derives from actions, not words.

4.    Relationships can be measured based on trust levels and other variables. Dr. Linda Childers Hon, University of Florida, and Dr. James E. Grunig, University of Maryland, developed an instrument to measure relationships using the variables of trust, satisfaction, commitment, control mutuality and shared values. They further broke the trust variable into three elements: integrity, or the belief that an organization is fair and just; dependability, the belief that an organization will do what it says it will do; and competence, the belief that the organization has the ability to do what it says it will do. Other researchers over the decades have measured trust on various levels including: disposition to trust; trusting beliefs; trusting intentions; and trusting behaviors.

5.    Openness and transparency increase trust. This appears to be true for a wide range of stakeholders and has been particularly well documented with employees. Sharing substantial information, allowing stakeholders to participate in important decisions and providing information that holds the organization accountable—all of these contribute individually to trust.

6.    To gain trust, the organization must trust others. Trust is reciprocal. The organization must willingly share control over its actions. Caring about the needs of others, telling the truth and being dependable will increase trustworthiness. Trying to exert influence or pressure others just to meet your own goals will damage trust.

7.    Neither trust nor the loss of it is a permanent condition. That’s bad news and good news. Once you have gained trust, you can still lose it. But if you have lost trust, you can get it back if you are willing to do what really matters to the other party.

The business benefits of trust are broad indeed: lower costs, increased speed and efficiency, fewer regulations, customer loyalty and employee retention among them. Through trust, business objectives link directly to the public relations function. If practitioners can show how their efforts measurably contribute to trust, they are more likely to be included in management decision-making. “Trust is critical to the functioning of our society at all levels—interpersonal, small group, organizational and societal—and is especially central to the practice of public relations,” writes Rawlins. But trust requires years of consistent actions. It can and should be measured and included as a critical dashboard indicator for any organization that cares about its relationships and reputation.

This article was written by Frank Ovaitt, president & CEO of the Institute for Public Relations; he can be reached at [email protected].