Trust and Influence – A Reality Check for Public Relations

July 13, 2021

If we look at Communication and Public Relations through the lens of a strategic corporate function, we ought to recognise that much of what we do is attached to an agenda.

In some cases, that agenda is personal – we want to progress up the career ladder, we want to be seen to add value, we want to be recognised for our merits and so on.

In other cases, that agenda is purely organisational – we know that if we propose a course of action, there will be consequences.

The business of “influence”, moving away from the marketing and salesy aspect of it, is immensely powerful and honed over years and years of making connections, building trust in what we do/say, and in always delivering on the promises we made – this is, in a nutshell, what real influence is all about.

One of the most complex roles of any communicator who finds himself/herself in the leadership structure of any organisation is to speak truth to power.

This “truth” includes ensuring a clear understanding, by the leadership of that organisation, that when things go wrong (and often they do), looking in the mirror is the best solution to avoid a crisis.

To ask the right questions, you need to remove bias of any kind. To build a real rapport with all your colleagues, you need to understand their motivations, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.

Forget about Artificial Intelligence (AI) for a second and think about Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – the latter is fundamental in your ability to position yourself, command respect, and become credible and trustworthy.

Although the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, I am certain you are all aware that emotional intelligence trumps the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) regarding staff morale and decision making in organisations.

But there is more to EQ than just helping staff morale and business performance – its about the influence it can exert on those who:

–     are impacted by your services (communities),

–     use your services (customers),

–     help you provide those services (suppliers/contractors),

–     ensure you provide the right services (regulators),

–     become aware of your services and scrutinise them (media)

To have any influence in any organisation, we must first understand what that organisation does and why it does it (other than making a profit, of course). Then, we need to know how it does its business and what it is that we can do to make that business better (regardless of what “better” may refer to).

While Public Relations will always retain its core functions of building relationships and mutual understanding, reputations and goodwill, its imperative is that of building trust now – we can trust someone we do not have a relationship with because trust is not rooted in emotions and feelings, but in standing by what you believe in, and proving you can deliver on a promise or commitment.

Every organisation, big or small, national, or multinational, listed or not, has a corporate mission, accompanied by corporate values, objectives etc. Some of these are larger than life and unattainable in practice, others are sensible and rather easy to work towards.

However, PR seems to be very quickly leaning towards the wrong side of the learning spectrum. We are less and less talking about the competitive edge or advantage or angle we can provide our Clients/Employers with; about the input we can have on their business development strategies and market positioning; about the Unique Selling Points we have identified which could help them stand out from their competitors; about the necessity of understanding their customers/service users/suppliers/regulators.

Instead, we seem to be talking about “social reach and sentiment”, “viral” posts, about Instagram and whatnot.

Really? How about we spoke about these as mere channels of reaction and interaction that support the Client/Employer reaching their business objectives of A, B, C?

If we continue to focus on tactics and outputs as opposed to strategy and outcomes, PR not only will it find it harder and harder to create a well-deserved seat for itself at the Boardroom table – it will also find it harder to argue the case of its practitioners’ understanding, knowledge of and direct input into any business’ growth and strategy.

After all, when we talk about publicly listed companies and multinationals, why would any C-suite executive be ready to listen to our advice when all we seem to be knowledgeable of or interested in is ‘digital skills’?

We often argue that perception is reality – I am afraid that, largely in the PR industry’s case, it is starting to look like it.

If you say that you work in Public Relations, you are likely to get “the look” – either that you do not have a real job (I was told that once), or that you “specialise in lying” (I heard that recently) or, even worse, “how can we trust you?”

“Trust” today has multiple meanings – it is the trust in politicians, in your family, friends and, for many of us, trust in whatever media and public information platforms we use.

In my view, the biggest hurdle we must overcome as Public Relations practitioners is that of gaining back trust.

Unlike as early as 30 years ago when trusting a PR person was related, most of the times, with our ability to cover one’s mess, spin the life out of every single story, master the craft of propaganda and manipulation, today is about telling the truth.

For those of us who still work in a bubble of dark arts, black hat, misinformation and military style disinformation, truth is hard, and trust has nothing to do with it.

Social purpose and corporate social responsibility are no longer in the form of mere website or brochure statements – to be believed, these need to be trusted. Similarly, in our industry’s case, trust in what we say is in its infancy.

There is an even more complex issue here, past the truth, honesty, and integrity with which we – members of whatever industry body – need to exercise our duties: that is our own credibility.

Lately, the narrative on various blogs and Twitter chats is shouting for a “seat at the table” and “board recognition”. While it is, of course, necessary to constantly aspire to attain both, that conversation needs to be held with those who have the power to give us the seat at the table or to appoint us for that much coveted board position.

In a business setting, trust in our competencies and skills, in our ability to see a business concept through its entire journey – together with its various ramifications and impacts on the business (financial and reputational) has a lot to do with the truth.

If we are to have the skills we need, we need to be trusted that we tell the truth – that we do not beautify it, spin it, inflate, or deflate any potential consequences.

And here comes one of the greatest paradoxes of the business world: your competency and ability to get the job done does not necessarily help you climb the career ladder or get a seat at the table. Your ability to “play the game” does.

And this ability, funnily enough, is also deeply rooted in trust: can you see the full picture and the agendas at play?

Do you understand that if X gets appointed as Vice President (for instance), Z may not get the funding or the board approval for his/her initiative to proceed?

Being an “observer” in our line of work, knowing when to sit back and watch or wait, knowing when to grab an opportunity and run with it, knowing when to demonstrate that you can be trusted (in all respects I mentioned above), and being confident that you can achieve what you committed to do, will give you much more than trust: they will lend you credibility.

Every human act of speaking, gesticulating, writing, and listening is covered by one vast area of research called communication – from the way we look at someone, all the way to how we use our bodies (either consciously or involuntarily) to express something without words.

The Communication function in every organisation has a significant role to play not just in “listening” and understanding what the multitude of voices inside and outside the organisation are saying but, also, in ensuring its role and its reach are clearly perceived by those in leadership positions.

So, those of us who work in Communication must bring solid arguments to our leadership, not hearsay – and we should let science be our best friend: research and analysis should underpin everything we do.

And common sense, respect, consideration, and caution should underpin everything we say.

  • Ella Minty is public relations expert with over 20 years experience working with international Governments and multi-donor organisations in corporate reputation, leadership, and crisis management. This article is based on her presentation to our June branch meeting and was originally published here.

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