Have We Lost Trust in Communications?

Regardless of your political orientation, I think we can all agree that anytime popular opinion can be manipulated by spreading false news is a bad thing. With a new election set to occur next year in the US, there is a concern (rightly so) about the possibility of foreign actors or others exerting influence on the outcome. Similarly, trust over personal data held by corporations is now at an all-time low. Have we forever lost trust in communications? Can it be regained? What can marketers or communications pros do to help reverse this trend?

The Research Findings are In

The Institute for Public Relations recently conducted a survey addressing this concern. The study, “The 2019 IPR Disinformation in Society Report,” was based on a poll conducted March 19-24, 2019 by 2,200 Americans. The research sought to identify the level of trust the American public has in collecting information from various data sources as well as the parties that are responsible for combatting disinformation.

I found the study quite interesting. To be honest, some of the findings were a bit alarming. I suspect the trend of declining trust likely exists in other regions of the world, but I have not yet read any such studies. This one focused just on the US.

Houston, We Have A Problem

Based on the research, of the top 12 issues facing those of us living in the U.S., a lack of trust in the news was a top concern. The researchers created two categories to track this loss of trust, separated out by “intent.” The situations where misinformation was shared unknowingly were defined as “misinformation” and situations where an intent existed to share wrong information were defined as “disinformation.”

Below is a chart from the study:

Source: The 2019 IPR Disinformation in Society Report

It wasn’t a surprise that health care costs topped the list. This is a big problem, with rising costs and an inability for people to afford healthcare. Ditto for illegal drug use or abuse – the Opioid crisis is real. Crime seemed a bit high on the list, but maybe I am living in a bit of a bubble in Orange County, California, to not see it. Then, after Terrorism came “Misinformation in the news,” “Gun violence,” and “Disinformation in the news.”


Getting shot and being a victim of fake news are viewed as nearly equal issues today.

We have a big problem. In fact, I would say we have a crisis on our hands. Nearly two-thirds of those polled expressed concern for how bad information is unknowingly or maliciously spread in the news.

Given we live in an information society where instant communications are the norm, if we can’t trust news or communications to be true, or at least be aware of when it is an onion on a fact, then we have a problem. This is an issue that could potentially derail how information is shared in our society – at least those of us now living where we have freedom of the press.

The Loss of Trust in Communications

Not only is this issue of mis/disinformation a big problem in the media with a presidential election coming up next year, but we also have a problem impacting companies and how they communicate with their customers, prospects, employees, partners, and others.

Trust is a delicate, intangible thing that must be earned. You know when you have it, and when it has been lost. Building it can take years and considerable investment. But, it can all be lost with a few bad decisions or through an effort to cover it up.

An obvious example is Facebook. Based on this article published by NBC News, in April 2018 when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, only 27 percent of respondents believed Facebook was committed to maintaining the privacy of their information (assuming we can trust the article). That score reflected a 66 percent drop – a stunning decline.

Fast forward a year later, and only 40 percent believe Facebook is trustworthy today. It didn’t help that other incidents came out suggesting a pattern existed vs. a one-time incident. Facebook has weathered this storm only because so many users are addicted to their product. It isn’t likely Facebook will go out of business. But they certainly are now at greater risk from new competitive threats.

Another example is Volkswagen and the “Dieselgate” scandal. In September 2015 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused VW of installing illegal manipulation devices that impacted how emissions were measured. As detailed in this timeline article, other car companies, brands, and suppliers have also been found to be involved including BMW, Daimler, and Porsche (owned by VW). This mess is still in process, nearly five years later, leaving a permanent impact on the Diesel industry.

What Can be Done?

News Agencies, Marketing, and Public Relations/communications professionals can help elevate the awareness and importance of building trust. But it also must be embraced by those leading our companies, news distribution agencies or our country. Without executive support coming from the very top of each respective organization, I don’t see a way out.  

Here are three suggestions on how to improve trust in media and corporate communications:

  1. Make Trust Part of Your Corporate Culture – this means that you must do what you say you are doing. It starts with how you operate your organization. It needs to be ok for someone to speak up and express concern over how a company operates or what a policy is. I give credit to Google and its employees who walked out to protest how the company handled sexual misconduct claims against executives. In response, Google ended forced arbitration for some cases.
  2. Managers Need to Trust their Employees – we need to stop enabling the practice of being a micromanager, at least if you want to instill trust as part of your company or political party’s reputation. It starts from within. If you can’t trust your own employees or staff, then how can the public trust your organization?
  3. Be Honest with Communications – this includes when something bad happens, not just the good stuff. Take ownership if you make a mistake, and then make it right. Don’t try to state something as true when factually it isn’t. Engaging in truthful types of announcements and behavior across both marketing and PR communications will build trust over time.

The future fate of trust is in our hands. We each need to do our part to make it happen. But it starts with those in a leadership position.

Published by

Gordon Benzie

Gordon Benzie is a marketing, communications and public relations consultant that is passionate about elevating brand awareness. He builds corporate narratives, writes business plans, and identifies unique value propositions. This intelligence can then be used to define and execute programs to improve sales and marketing effectiveness.

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