ITL #171 Generating trust: in the shadow of obsolescence?

3 years, 8 months ago

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Clients are demanding PR agencies move beyond a traditional approach. Although new models remain unclear, no one doubts that building trust will be intrinsic. By Robert H Holdheim.



My company has been fascinated with the concept of trust for some time. We’ve studied it for 16 years in the form of our annual survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer. In recent years, our results have uncovered a decline in trust across key institutions. This decline is a symptom of a deeper problem. As societal demands for transparency have grown, the ability of organizations and brands to influence how they are perceived has dramatically declined. This change is having a profound impact on our profession.

Traditional PR (defined as pure-play media relations) could become obsolete in the not too distant future – at least as a stand-alone offering. The same can be said of the 30-second TV spot. Neither can achieve what it once could. Neither can generate the trust it once did.

This is not to suggest that earned media will decline in importance. In the past, however, a media placement was the culmination of our work. It now more likely represents the first stage – to be followed by amplification across multiple channels including paid, social and owned media. Earned media will not be obsolete – just those who offer nothing else.

Why is trust important?

Trust is the mortar that holds together the bricks of reputation; the currency at the foundation of our stakeholder relationships. It enables us to achieve our objectives in good times, and insulates us from reputational damage in bad. Reputation, in turn, is the sum of awareness plus understanding. Advertising has traditionally been more responsible for awareness; PR, for understanding. And trust is a by-product of understanding.

Trust is important for the simple reason that it directly impacts behavior:

  • People vote for candidates they trust – or perhaps more often, against those they mistrust.
  • People buy products from companies they trust, and increasingly avoid them from companies they mistrust.
  • They want to work for companies they trust.
  • They invest in and with companies they trust.
  • They holiday in trusted countries and hotel chains.

And increasingly, people act on the recommendation of those they trusteven if they don’t know them personally. Think of AirBnB and Uber ratings.

What’s changed?

It’s fair to say that generating trust is the objective of communications – even of broader marketing. If we do our jobs right, trust is what comes out at the other end. Does the decline in trust, then, mean that we are no longer doing our jobs right? More likely, the proverbial goalpost has shifted.

Societal developments have contributed to this shift:

  • The explosion of information sources has made it impossible to control what is being said about us.
  • Technological change has dramatically increased the number of methods people use to access and convey information.
  • Digital and social media have made everyone a journalist, and every company a publisher.
  • Demographic changes, such as rising wealth and education levels, have dramatically increased the number of people who have access to – and interest in – information.
  • This has led to new standards of transparency and accountability. Potential critics are everywhere. They have access to information, and a platform to call you out.

In this context, we need to ask ourselves a few hard questions:

Can we still generate trust simply by saying, and not doing?

Is media relations-based communication enough when traditional media is in free fall, and new channels are all around us?

Is traditional advertising enough, when the modern approach thrives on engagement and conversations?

Where do we begin when we need to convey our side of the story to more diverse, and more geographically dispersed, audiences?

How do we influence the conversation when anybody can say anything about us at any time, with no standard of proof or recourse; and when that information can live forever on Google?

The end of an era

I believe our new reality represents a breakdown of the traditional marketing paradigm. We have moved well beyond the one-way, advertising led, marketing model. Equally, we are moving beyond the traditional PR approach.

Clients are demanding more from us. And their demands cut across disciplines. The new model remains a grey area. We can’t yet see it fully. But we can recognize many of its components:

  • It involves communications across paid, owned and earned channels, in fully-integrated programs.
  • It targets stakeholders, not just consumers or investors.
  • Programs need to be built on the back of creative ideas, based on real insights and analytics.
  • Engagement is at the heart of it, creating ways for people to participate in and with brands and organizations.
  • It is built on conversations, not monologues.
  • It involves storytelling, and those stories must have societal impact.
  • It is built around tailored, visually appealing content.

If these are our success criteria, PR should have a strong claim to a leadership role in the new paradigm. We have been doing these things all along.

Where to from here?

So how do we, as PR firms, stake our claim?

Part of the answer is convergence: we will have to expand our offering. The “swim lanes” concept, where each agency sticks to its clearly defined function, has had its day.

Some argue that PR firms are simply trying to become ad agencies. But why would we move from one obsolete model to another? Besides, ad agencies have decades of experience and track records of outstanding success. It would be silly for PR firms to compete directly in their field. This is about defining an offer that can compete with advertising as a more effective alternative.

Where do we find this new model? As long as we try to address our future by piecing together elements of our past, we won’t. We have to change our thought process. This is not a one-stop-shop concept, implying a basket of goods available from a single location. The holding companies have tried this.

We need a blended offering, not a blend of offerings. Our ultimate success will lie in overcoming our reliance on outdated definitions, and integrating these disciplines into a single, broader, more impactful approach. Failure to do so may just make us obsolete.


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The Author

Robert H Holdheim

Robert H Holdheim, CEO South Asia, Middle East & Africa at Edelman.

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