The end of trust and the irrelevance of reputation?

We’ve gone backwards and forwards over the years trying to define public relations, but it’s essentially concerned with behaviour in relationships – and what we’re mainly interested in is behaviour around interests and objectives.

In trying to define what we do we have been side-tracked into thinking that public relations should be focussed on building awareness, understanding, trust, goodwill and reputation.

We went so far as to declare, in the mid-1990’s, in a new Institute of Public Relations definition, that public relations was the discipline that looked after reputation, that it was a practice of reputation management.

There’s ample evidence that awareness, understanding, trust, goodwill and reputation have measurable value, insofar as they are linked to results in behaviour. And they may be distractions from understanding behaviour when they, rather than behaviour, become the focus of attention.

These thoughts are prompted by current political developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

According to the Pew Research Center in the US, public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).

In the UK, public trust in politics has plummeted following the Brexit crisis, according to the HuffPost, April 8, 2019. Politicians in the UK suggest that unless Brexit is completed soon, public trust in politicians to deliver on their promises will be damaged irrevocably.

For the time being, political activity in both countries continues, against the background lack of trust.

In the US, preparations for the coming campaign for the presidency have begun, and in the UK, the Conservatives’ search for a new leader, and new Prime Minister, retains a level of public interest.

In both countries, political leaders have questionable reputations but retain support regardless of reputation.

The US President’s lies in public statements have been cataloged by media outlets, and in the UK, the front runner in the Conservative leadership contest has also been shown to be economical with the truth on many occasions. But despite the questions about their reputations on these and other grounds their continuing political success seems likely.

So questions can be asked about the importance of trust and reputation, where behaviour – in this case political support – will serve political interests and objectives without the need for high levels of trust or a good reputation.

It’s easy, too, to think of commercial examples – for example of large commercial organisations suspected of sharp business practice such as profiteering and having poor reputations still enjoying commercial success in the absence of trust and reputation.

In public relations, the focus of practice must be on behaviour and on greater understanding of the influence of levels of trust and quality of reputation on behaviour of interest. They – awareness, understanding, trust, goodwill and reputation – are not ends in themselves but factors bearing on behaviour, sometimes highly relevant and at other times less so.

These topics – Trust and Reputation – will be discussed at the 26th International Public Relations Research Symposium, BledCom (www.bledcom.com) on July 4, 5, and 6, at Bled, Slovenia.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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