Crisis of Trust Will Force PR to Rethink Its Methods

We enter 2012 with the world around us mired in a crisis of trust.  Consider the latest Evidence:

First, congressional job approval ratings have descended to a historic low of 11 percent, according to a CNN/ORC poll released last Monday.  Other recent national polls (Gallup, NYT/CBS, ABC News/Washington Post) pegged congressional job approval at 9-13 percent.  Decades of earlier polling data had not produced such a scathing indictment of the country’s political leadership.  In fact, the only time since 1975 that trust in government declined below 50 percent was in the months following 9/11, according to Gallup.

These surveys deliver an unequivocal verdict: Americans don’t trust Congress.  In fact, higher percentages of Americans hold favorable views of pornography (30%, Gallup, 2011), Nixon during Watergate (24%, Gallup, 1974), BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (16%, Gallup, 2010), and even the idea of America switching to Communism (11%, Rasmussen, 2011).

Second, trust in America’s financial systems is dwindling.  According to the latest Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index, only 23 percent of Americans surveyed in September 2011 say they trust the country’s financial systems, down from 25 percent in June 2011.

Third, public trust in the news media continues to diminish.  Only 25 percent of respondents in the latest Pew survey said that news organizations generally get the facts right, while 66 percent said stories are often inaccurate.  A shocking 77 percent of respondents think that news organizations tend to favor one side, and 80 percent say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations.

Finally, Americans decry concentrations of power.  A Gallup poll (March 25-27, 2011) found that most Americans believe that lobbyists, major corporations, banks, and the federal government all hold too much power.  Sometimes, this resentment flares up in dramatic and colorful forms such as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.   Interestingly, a Pew Research poll (December 7-11, 2011) found that support for OWS increased since the mid-October peak in the movement’s media coverage.  Last week, supporters of the Occupy movement assembled in DC to greet members of Congress with the message: “You don’t represent 99 percent of the country.”

In aggregate, we see clear and convincing evidence of the sorry state of trust.  These are not outlying data points that capture bursts of skepticism and anger.  These are not negligible downticks that punctuate an otherwise healthy trend.  These are not “normal” cycles of discontent that rise and fall with the rise and fall of good things such as economic growth and bad things such as unemployment.  Most recent confidence/trust/reputation surveys represent snapshots of multi-year or multi-decade descents into broad-based “structural” distrust.

Despite the dramatic weakening in the bonds of trust, the PR industry and its clients still operate as if little has changed in the world since Bing Crosby died or since Edward Bernays published his seminal book: Propaganda. We still rely on methods and habits of mind that evolved in a world uncomplicated by post-modern anxieties.  We and our clients are facing a torrent of discontent, if not open contempt, and we are still trying to dam the flow with the veil of soulless corporate-speak and tricks of the trade that worked in a simpler time.

This reflexive ritualism only deepens the crisis of trust.  It also obscures more sensible remedies consistent with the industry’s professed commitment to truth, candor, creativity and the craft of story-telling.  In my next two posts, I will share some thoughts on the entrenched practices and assumptions that we need to rethink or abolish to uncover better ways to build trust.

Published in PRWeek on January 23, 2012

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