Trust in communicators plummets, according to report

We continue to live in interesting times as trust levels in communicators plumet. In many countries trust in the mass media and journalism is declining. This loss of trust might also be true for other communicators, especially those who communicate on behalf of companies and other types of organisations. This is a key challenge for the profession, as communicators need to be trusted by the people they work for, for example, top executives and (internal) clients. But they are also dependent on the trust of journalists, bloggers, influencers, and publics with whom they interact.

Troubled reading

Over the past six months, I have been working with colleagues from Germany and Italy exploring the issue of trust in different organisational stakeholders. We have asked practitioners as well as the general public for their opinions. And it makes for troubling reading.

The Trust in Communicators (#TiCS19) report reveals high levels of distrust in organisational spokespeople, but that external experts are the most trusted advocates in the general population. External advocates for organisations are trusted more than top executives, public relations professionals and marketers by the public. Our team explored what this changing picture means for communications professionals and for the important organisational trust-building process.

Journalism vs PR

Previous research indicates that trust differs between different levels and stakeholders. Journalists are very critical towards the PR profession in general. Working closely together, however, has a positive effect: journalists who have worked closely with PR professionals evaluate the profession better than those who haven’t. The general population, on the other hand, is generally less critical towards the PR profession than journalists.

The ECM 2019 is the first study to comprehensively explore the topic across different levels, stakeholders and countries.

Key findings

The PR profession is only trusted by:

  • Two thirds of top executives (67.5%)
  • A minority of influencers and bloggers (47.5%)
  • Two-fifths of journalists (39.1%)
  • One third of ordinary people (27.6%)

Generally speaking, the perception of trust levels in the profession is higher in Northern and Western Europe than in Southern and Eastern Europe.

Personally speaking

Professionals are the most positive about the perceived trust they enjoy personally. A vast majority feels trusted by their colleagues, bosses, and internal clients, as well as by external stakeholders and audiences. On the personal level hierarchy matters: communication leaders feel more trusted than professionals in other ranks. The data also reveals some gender differences: women report more trusted relationships with external stakeholders, but men claim to be on better terms with top leaders of their organisation.

Trust in strategic communication and public relations: Clear differences between different levels and stakeholders

Trusted speakers of organisations

Communications and PR professionals are not the only spokespersons for organisations. Formal representatives like CEOs and board members or marketing and sales people, as well as other employees and members of the organisation also play a role. External experts in the field, customers, fans and supporters, and even activists can also provide support. Knowing about different advocates and choosing or supporting them carefully is an important part of strategic communication.

This year’s monitor asked professionals how they experience the trust of the general public in different groups speaking on behalf of their organisation. Practitioners think that most other advocates are more trustworthy than themselves:

  • They perceive external experts in the field (like professors or consultants) as the most trusted (70.3%)
  • This is followed by leaders of the organisation (CEOs, board members and top executives; 66.7%)
  • Closely followed by external supporters like fans or customers/clients (63.9%)
  • Other employees or members of the organisation are reported to achieve a similar trust level like communication professionals (61.0/60.6%)
  • Marketing and sales representatives are rated lower (43.2%)
  • Public trust in external organisations, such as activists who act as advocates for organisations, is perceived surprisingly low (31.6%).

Respondents working in non-profits rate public trust in external experts and supporters significantly higher than their peers in other organisations, and they also experience a higher level of trust in themselves.

Geography matters

Professionals do not perceive much distrust in advocates speaking on behalf of organisations. Only 4.4% of them report distrust and the majority of 52.5% thinks that ordinary people in their country trusts organisational advocates. But there are significant differences across Europe. The perception of overall public trust in advocates is lowest in Germany, France, Poland, the United Kingdom and Italy; and highest in Ireland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

Public trust in organisational advocates: External experts, supporters, top managers and employees are more trusted than communications practitioners

Methodology

The Trust in Communicators study is in two parts. Firstly we talked to organisational communicators through a quantitative study in three countries, Germany, Italy and the UK to understand communicators’ trust perceptions. We have compared their opinions with the trust perceptions of communication professionals in the same countries by the general population.

Based on former studies and existing literature on trust in communication professionals, a statement list was constructed to survey the amount of trust or distrust in all kinds of public communicators who can speak on behalf of an organisation as well as journalists when they report about organisations. Also, statements regarding public relations activities were outlined. The survey is based on a representative sample of adults aged 16 to 64 from Germany, Italy and the UK (interviewed via an internet omnibus in spring 2019 by Kantar TNS). In addition, communication professionals were surveyed as part of the annual European Communication Monitor at the same time (communicationmonitor.eu).

Written by Ralph Tench, director of research at Leeds Business School