According to Gallup, public trust in mass media dropped from 70% during the 1970’s Watergate era to 44% today.
Jay Rosen recently wrote a must-read post about this drop in confidence in the press. He poses some difficult questions and tries to answer why this trust has fallen so far.
He asks how this is possible:
“So the puzzle is: how do these things fit together? More of a profession, more educated people going into journalism, a more desirable career, greater cultural standing (although never great pay) bigger staffs, more people to do the work … and the result of all that is less trust.”
He provides some thoughtful possibilities but admits he doesn’t have the definitive answer.
Rosen notes that confidence in most institutions has plummeted:
“The Church. In 1973, 66 percent had a great deal or a fair amount of trust. In 2010: 48 percent.
Banks. 1979: 60 percent, 2010: 23 percent.
Public schools. 1973: 58 percent, 2010: 34 percent
The Presidency: 1973: 52 percent, 2010: 36 percent.”
You can add business and PR into that same orbit of lost trust. Some, like the Economist, in its article “Slime-slinging“, would argue the pond scum of public relations has nowhere further to fall but I digress.
The thing that’s fascinating is the close parallel of journalism with public relations.
Our profession has grown in size and influence. We’re better educated and more “professional” too. We have national and international PR associations, accreditation and higher standards, though some beg to differ.
Numerous trade publications, blogs and websites cover every industry development. We often have a seat at the boardroom table. We’re fairly well paid with an average US annual salary of $51,280. Jobs are expected to grow 24% by 2018. We’ve even redefined PR. Haven’t we? (Cough.)
Public relations is an essential cog in the establishment. We develop and communicate its messages. We publicize successes, guard reputations and handle crises. Now we also monitor and direct vital social media channels.
We’re a success in the past two decades. But our trust figures are even lower than media. Perhaps because we’re part of the power structure too?
When trying to answer why trust in PR is so low, it’s useful to consider several of Rosen’s reasons.
He’s already established that most institutions are less trusted in the past two decades. And PR is part of this establishment.
Bad actors in the profession? Guilty on that count. Liberal bias? Not so much with PR, I suspect.
Rosen thinks “professionalization” of media may have contributed to loss of trust. He suggests “truthtelling” may somehow need to be reintroduced. Ouch! That one resonates for PR.
Unlike Rosen, I think I have an answer to the PR trust issue. It has to do with advocacy. Like lawyers, CEOs and marketers, we are advocates for our organizations. Unless shown otherwise, media, the public and many others expect a built-in bias. Our job in many cases is to enhance or protect the reputation of our organization and that is PR’s biggest challenge.
Somehow, we need to find a way to work as trusted, honest communicators despite the built-in challenge and bias of advocacy.
“Integrity also means avoiding any communication that is deceptive, full of guile, or beneath the dignity of people,” according to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.”
In other words, caring about our organization and its impact on its many “publics.”
Can we ever build greater public trust in PR? Are there solutions?
Here are a few possible solutions that come to mind:
- speak out against the “bad actors” in PR
- operate transparently in your communications
- be known as a valuable resource and a problem-solver to media, your own organization and the public
- mentor your young staff on ethical communications
- get active in professional organizations that have regulations and ethical guidelines such as PRSA and IABC.
Maybe it’s a generation thing? The curse of the baby boomers? They’re all still mad as hell at the “establishment” and their children are not going to take it anymore either. The internet has made it easy for anyone to complain, criticize, find fault and shift the blame everywhere but where it belongs — on the individual.
While we might hate to admit it, maybe journalists and PR pros have been too busy being consumers, advancing our careers and going for the almighty dollar at the expense of our principles?
Maybe a return to Rosen’s principled “professionalism” would help restore the public’s trust in journalism? That’s why we revered Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Woodward and Bernstein. Same solution for PR.
The question is who will be the icons of our PR profession 20 years from now? Is it remotely possible that public relations could become one of the most trusted professions in the future? Not without a lot of thought. Certainly not without showing by our actions why the public should trust PR professionals.
For now, the puzzle remains.
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