A New Era: The Role of PR Pros in an Era of Declining Trust

September 1, 2014

 New York Times columnist David Brooks says that it’s a new era of peer-to-peer commerce, moving away from trust based on institutional affiliations, and finding new trust in online signaling and peer evaluations. Brooks, writing on June 30, insightfully calls it “a personalistic culture in which people have lost trust in big institutions.”

The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer
found declines in trust of government, now down to 37 percent. In addition, public trust in business dropped to 58 percent. Plus, the gap between trust of government and trust of business reached a record high in the history of the global survey.

In ING’s 2014 Social Media Impact Survey, half of the responding journalists said that they find consumer opinion more reliable than official statements from organizations. And participating PR professionals reported that journalists are making contact less frequently in order to check facts. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of journalists said that they always check facts before publishing.

Perhaps related to that confession, Gallup found confidence in media continuing to erode. In 1979, newspapers had a 51 percent confidence level, now it’s a mere 19 percent.

Actions speak the loudest

What’s a PR professional to do?

After all, many of us make our living working for institutional clients and employers. And much of our work focuses on managing the media.

We might start by listening to some advice from Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, co-founder and CEO of the analytical company AirPR, and his simple description of  “The 3 Ts of a Great PR Experience: Truth, Trust and Transparency,” from a June 20, 2013, Forbes article. The title pretty much sums it up.

PRSA members already have the necessary ingredients to help PR professionals create, restore, clarify or maintain confidence in the organizations that we serve. Indeed, those ingredients are the fundamental values found in the PRSA Code of Ethics: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.

Regardless of what medium or technique — old or new, quaint or transformative — that PR professionals employ to engage stakeholders, our commitment and firm adherence to these values will earn the trust required for strong, mutually beneficial relationships.

All of our clients and the stakeholders that make them viable are looking for something that they can believe in — for authenticity. And the members of PRSA’s Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) are seeking new, relevant ways to interpret and apply our Ethics Code Values and Provisions of Conduct.

For example, when faced with disclosure issues related to the blurring lines between editorial and paid content, BEPS recently issued a new Ethical Standards Advisory (ESA) on “Native Advertising & Sponsored Content.”

And, we’ll soon release a statement on ethical concerns and guidance specifically related to the use of social media in the daily PR practice. We will update existing ESAs in the coming months to address new issues and situations in the context of our values, too.

During this Ethics Month, you’ll hear about “The New Authenticity.” BEPS members believe that this theme represents the movement to build trust and confidence by focusing on actions that respect and engage stakeholders.

As one of the Page Principles — as in Arthur W. Page — states, “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does, and 10 percent by what it says.”

BEPS believes that actions speak the loudest. We encourage active support of the PRSA Code of Ethics, and a renewed commitment to the best professional code of conduct in the communications business.

George L. Johnson,  APR, Fellow PRSA
George L. Johnson, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an adjunct instructor at the College of Mass Communications & Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. He is the chair of BEPS at PRSA.


Michael F. Kelly says:

George - it's refreshing to see light shown on the link between the sad state of trust of organizations and the practice of PR which claims to protect reputation, and likely, trust. And the BEPS actions are excellent! I might point out where some of our thinking needs to change: for example, you mention: 'And much of our work focuses on managing the media.' which hangs on to the grossly mistaken idea the we (PR, organizations) control the thinking of the media, customers, markets. Never was true and still isn't. What we can manage is our internal thinking about being authentic, finding our true values and actually living by them. THAT will influence the media, customers and markets. I kind of mentioned this in a presentation I made (with Bill Wiersma) last October at the PRSA International Conference on raising the Professionalism of the profession. I quoted the same Page principle that you did: '“Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does, and 10 percent by what it says.” and also pointed out that if PR is only about what an organization says, it is limited to a 10% impact on it's reputation and hence trust. This is pretty much what the PRSA BEPS is saying now and more important, doing something solid about it. I'm very impressed!

Sept. 6, 2014

George L. Johnson, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I couldn't agree more! Perhaps I should have said, "Too much of our work focuses on what we think is managing the media," since that's what I had in mind. We need to spend more of our time counseling CEOs and board members, and much less time preparing and peddling adjective-laden news releases, which some of our cohorts are strangely calling "press releases" again. Thank you for your support, Michael.

Sept. 10, 2014

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