It’s this time of the year again. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer is out, and I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for all PR practictioners and students to analyse it and understand its message and meaning. In this post, I would like to especially focus on one particular aspect I found interesting – the link between the developing trust gap and growing receptivity to aggressive poltics and what it might mean for contemporary PR practice.
Every year, the Edelman Trust Report is lead by the major ‘trust’ theme depicting the most vital changes in the society. The 2016 report has been dubbed the year of “Growing Inequality of Trust” between informed public and mass population and displays great insight into what it might mean for businesses, media, governments, NGOs and society. What I found especially interesting in the report, was the link between the altering nature of leadership trust and declining trust of mass populations.
“Inequality of trust has important consequences. The most obvious is growing receptivity to politicians who prey on fear instead of offering solutions”. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary
I would also like to get into more detail to explore the reasons for and implications of this trend for PR and communications.
The trust gap, one of the underlying reasons for the success of ‘aggressive’ and ‘radical’ politicians, such as Donald Trump in the USA , has increased by three points over the last year. The booming popularity of social media, inclusiveness of the cyberspace, revelations of greed and misdeeds by influential figures and growing income inequality have led to grievances amongst the mass and often misinformed population. This translates to increased support of extreme political candidates, offering short-term solutions and basing the political rhetoric on the very misconceptions leading the mass popuation’s fears. As a result, the groups that are the target of the misconceptions and prejudice (e.g. immigrants or Muslims) get further alienated and their trust in political institutions further declines. The self-perpetrating circle right there.
What implications does this have for modern reputation management and communication strategies?
On the one hand, the widening trust gap means that politicians and influential figures can get easy, widespread coverage and PR if they properly identify societal grievances and fears (as fear is the worst enemy of reason) and address them. This negative PR most certainly brings attention and sparks heated debates, but we need to remember that this could either prove problematic or beneficial for the political candidate and could hold long-term effects.
On the other hand, it creates negative, unethical frameworks for the PR practice. Often based on lies or half-truths, the widening trust gap creates dangerous possibilities of exploitation, which opens a lot of new doors for various PR activities and creates a self-perpetuating circle of negative political rhetoric.
What is more, I think that in the era of trust inequality, PR and communication activities have to be thought of and performed differently for mass populations and informed populations, given their different perceptions of reality, societal issues and the differences in trust levels they display. Nowadays, I think it is more important than ever for PR practictioners to gain deep and diligent insight into the issues, which will result in more effective differentiation between informed and mass audiences, and – as a result – in more tailored PR activities – be it aiming at reinforcing beliefs or aiming at altering the perceptions of the public.
Therefore, it seems about time that PR develops successful methods of both bridging the trust divide and creates effective methods of communication aimed at those two major groups.
Read the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer here
Read the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary here