Agents of Trust

Written by Dustin Manley

The role of public relations has undergone significant change over the past two decades.  No longer a luxury and subsect of the marketing department, public relations is a necessity for any organization because trust is a measurable currency.

How much is trust worth? For Volkswagen, the price of misleading the public was 23% ($17.6 billion) of its market value. This is just within a couple of days since their crisis came to light; the financial losses will likely become much larger in the coming weeks.

Public trust can also affect the bottom line of non-profit organizations and charities, as was the case with Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) in 2007.  When a Toronto Star investigation revealed that 81% of donations went to fundraisers and administration and only 19% went to programs designed to fight drunk driving, MADD Canada suffered significant financial losses raising only $6.6 million in 2008; a $2.2 million shortfall from 2007. The damage lingered and in 2009 MADD projected a target of only $6.1 million.

During the listeriosis outbreak in August 2008 which resulted in the deaths of 22 people, Maple Leaf Foods demonstrated ideal crisis communications. Since 2003 there had been 73 listeria-related recalls in the United States, however this was a relatively new crisis for Canadians. Maple Leaf Foods did not try to spin the situation or obfuscate the facts. The CEO provided a genuine apology and accepted responsibility within three days of the incident, 191 products were quickly recalled even though only a small number were affected, and the public and media were updated multiple times a week on the situation.

By January 2009 Maple Leaf Foods’ market capital was at $1.57 billion – higher than it was in August 2008 – and surveys showed consumers regained confidence in purchasing their products.

These examples demonstrate that public relations is well outside the scope of providing media relations and supporting marketing initiatives. Our role is to build mutually beneficial relationships with publics, maintain an open dialogue with stakeholders, and act as a sober second voice at the executive table.

Serving the public good has been a primary tenant of public relations since its modern inception in the early 1900s. History identifies Ivy Lee as the father of modern public relations and his work as counsellor to John Rockefeller during the Ludlow Massacre as one of the first modern public relations campaigns. However, the literature often glosses over the fact that Rockefeller had another senior counsellor: William Lyon Mackenzie King.

King left an indelible mark on public relations by using an early model of two-way symmetrical communication to significantly enhance labour and community relations between the Rockefeller Foundation and their employees in the coal mines. In a 1914 article published in Everybody’s Magazine, King publicly denounced his employer’s mistreatment of the coal miners, forcing a public dialogue regarding the crisis. Eventually the Rockefellers and their employees came to a mutually beneficial understanding; the miners received improved wages and working conditions and as the Rockefellers regained some public trust.

The Canadian Public Relations Society’s national definition of public relations captures the actions used in campaigns and crises by individuals like Mackenzie King and Maple Leaf Foods:

“Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)”

DesignedUX ascribes to the CPRS’ definition and code of ethics, providing expert public relations services which benefit both our clients and the public. In order to further advance the profession of public relations we sit on the board of a local CPRS chapter and are also working with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management in establishing a global body of knowledge.

One of the reasons we work closely with organizations like CPRS and the Global Alliance is to advance the public and organizational perception of public relations. This is important because the industry is growing in terms of practitioners and responsibility.

The public relations industry in Canada has seen significant growth in practitioners and pedagogy during the past two decades. Between 1991 and 2011 employment in public relations had doubled in size from 23,780 to 54,703. In order to educate and train these new practitioners, there are now 14 applied public relation and communication degree programs in Canada; a significant increase from only having one  Bachelor of Public Relations (BPR) degree available during 1977-1999.

The advent of social media and web 2.0 have been significant game changers in the role of public relations and can be attributed to the increased role it plays in contemporary organizations. Social media has effectively blurred the lines of internal and external communication (public relations) to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable. Social media has provided organizations with unprecedented opportunities for not only growth, but risk as well. The adage that it takes years to builds a reputation and only seconds to destroy it has never been more true than today.

There has never been a more exciting time to work in public relations. At DesignedUX, we are privileged to work with our clients in building their reputations, sharing their breakthroughs, and providing them with measurable data to reach their goals.

However, as agents of trust we recognize that we not only serve our clients, but the public as well.

Dustin Manley, MA (Professional Communication)
Senior Account Manager, DesignedUX