Leeds Business School

Trust survey reveals it’s not what is said but who said it that matters - External advocates more trusted than communications professionals

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 report published on the 23rd October reveals that there are 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 of European university researchers explored what this changing picture means for communications professionals and for the important organisational trust-building process.

Working with my researchers from Leipzig University and IULM University Milan, and facilitated by Cision Insights and Fink & Fuchs. The team focussed our research in Germany, the UK and Italy by representative polls in each of country. The polls aimed to investigate how much trust the public have in leaders of organisations, journalists, public relations (PR) and marketing professionals. We compared this with trust in other advocates speaking on behalf of organisations. Additionally we carried out a survey among communication professionals in the same countries. This survey aimed to understand how practitioners assess public trust in them as professionals.

The public poll highlighted that communication and PR professionals are trusted and recognised more highly in the UK than in Germany or Italy. However, the general public has a high-level of distrust in these professionals. A trust gap was identified between communications and PR professionals and journalists, but it was not as wide as expected and is closing.

We know that information about organisations is often spread by people who are not acting in a professional communication role – i.e. organisational advocates such as supportive customers (fans, brand ambassadors), experts in the field (academics, consultants) or activists with overlapping interests. The polls found that external experts are the most trusted of these advocates, but all are trusted more highly than communication and PR professionals . We believe therefore that efforts should be focussed on enabling these advocacy groups to promote the trust-building process.

The polls revealed that the general population has fuzzy perceptions about the goals and activities of PR professionals whilst communication and PR professionals misperceive the public’s opinion about them and overestimate public trust. These professionals also misjudge their role in the trust-building process and ignore public trust in external advocates.

In summary our study has asked both the general public and organisational communicators about trust in companies. The results show clear divergence in trust perceptions.  For those professionals working in the communications sector and representing organisations we would urge them to take on board the implications of the study’s findings and place greater importance on internal and external influencers to support the important organisational trust-building process.

TICs event poster

About the study The Trust in Communicators study is in two parts

Firstly we have 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 in the same time (communicationmonitor.eu).

Summary of key findings from the Trust in Communicators Study 2019 (#TiCS19)

  • External experts the most trusted by the general public
  • Trust gap between journalists and PR/marketing people still exists but not as wide as expected and is closing
  • Organisational leaders (executives) least trusted by general population
  • General population have high level distrust of communication and public relations professionals
  • Communication professionals in the UK trusted and recognised higher than in Germany and Italy
  • Fuzzy perceptions about the goals and activities of public relations by the general population
  • Communication professional overestimate the trust in them by the general population

Professor Ralph Tench

Director of Research / Leeds Business School

Professor Tench is the Director of Research for Leeds Business School and the elected President and Head of the Board of Directors for the European Public Relations Research and Education Association (EUPRERA). EUPRERA is the leading academic association for public relations and strategic communication.

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