Richard Edelman, the head of the world's largest privately held PR firm, said that the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global survey of 31,000 people, revealed a lack of trust for business and government that was "contagious" and spreading to other sectors.
He said that it's the first time that such lack of trust has become viral and it stems from the financial sector.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, co-panelist and professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said, "We are all being tarred with the same brush."
Mr. Edelman said that the survey showed that government ranks lower in trust than business and that this is an opportunity for companies to act quickly and distance themselves from the poor standing of government.
Every company is a media company...
Mr. Edelman also spoke about other trends, such as how "every company is a media company" mentioning Silicon Valley Watcher, and how business is stepping into the empty space becoming vacant because of a shrinking media industry.
Professor Pfeffer told the largely PR executive audience, that there was only one way that businesses can deal with the issue of trust and improve their low standing, "CEOs should tell the truth."
Peter Burrows asked about how "trust" is reflected in the stock market. He pointed out that banks and financial services companies have had a very good year and are doing very well.
Mr. Edelman said that CEOs often look at "trust" as if they are putting coins in a piggy bank, but it's not an equal relationship because a fall in a company's trust can be geometric and not linear. He said CEOs should give up the idea of control of a message, it's less risky, "Let the community decide."
Professor Pfeffer recommended "getting ahead of the story" and "don't let the story dribble out in bits."
Ignore the media...
Eric Channing Brown, GM at Skype, and a co-panelist spoke about his prior PR work at Yahoo! and elsewhere. He said that keeping CEOs out of the media spotlight, away from answering questions about an issue, improved their standing. Ignoring the media led to far more positive results than engaging with the media.
Mary Dent, General Counsel at Silicon Valley Bank, and a co-panelist, said that CEOs have to be role models and that they need to do the right things.
Transparency failure in local government...
David Vossbrink, Director of Communications at City of San Jose, said that greater transparency and openness had not helped raise trust in the government of the city of San Jose. "The more we do the less we are trusted."
The very low trust level of business and government was an interesting point and it is a worry, especially during these tough economic times with high levels of unemployment.
Low trust clearly requires good public relations to help fix perceptions and the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer shows the proof and the scale of the problem.
But the Trust Barometer can be volatile. Over the past few years there have been large swings in the levels of trust for media, bloggers, peers, experts, CEOs, and industry sectors. What was true last year often isn't true the next.
That might be because of the fickle public's short memories, or it could be because of excellent PR.