Can PR manage trust?

The BBC reports that energy prices “could fall soon” – I just received an unsolicited telephone call from British Gas offering to save me money.  Was the call to tell me the company was reversing the horrendous 35% increase introduced this Summer?  Of course not, the telesales chap simply wanted me to sign over my electricity supply too.

Boris Johnson reports a similar call – seems British Gas think the answer to customer satisfaction is to annoy us with the heavy sell.  I told the caller that I was happy with my electricity supplier and that I didn’t want to receive calls from British Gas selling me things (I am registered with the telephone preference service, but apparently that doesn’t protect me against sales calls from companies I buy from!).

The guy then started into a sales pitch to counter my response – so I told him that at 4.30pm, I was working and didn’t want to take his call.  He seemed confused that someone could be working from home – does he think everyone who answers the phone during the day is unemployed or a housewife?

Last week, I received a package from British Gas containing some low energy light bulbs, with a patronising remark about energy efficiency.  I didn’t ask for these and don’t need them as I already use such bulbs.  Indeed, they cost pennies in the supermarkets and they generally last for years.  How dare British Gas lecture me about saving the planet when it has used resources to send me something I don’t need using marketing money from the extortionate bills it charges.

Do I sound like I like British Gas, let alone trust it?

If I visit the British Gas website, the green messages keep on coming – all one way regarding how it can help us to save energy, blah, blah, blah.

Its caring nature is evident in partnerships with Help the Aged, through which it criticises government policy.  But any demands for the energy companies to be socially responsible by passing on the reduction in cost of oil are met with obfuscating comments about long-term world market wholesale prices, etc.

Anyway, to get back to the question about PR and trust – I don’t care about British Gas, my bank, my mobile phone or internet provider, my supermarket or any other business that I have the misfortune to deal with.  It is simply an exchange relationship and one where I think I come off worse. 

None of these organisations – or the zillions of others I could mention, including the public and not-for-profit sector – care about me.  I don’t want to have a social relationship with them just an honest business transaction.  They just want my money – and as much of it as they can take.

At PR Conversations, Toni Muzi Falconi claims the future of PR is in managing stakeholder relationships.  But doesn’t the current global uncertainty present us with a much more fundamental issue.

Yes times are tough for businesses – but annoying your customers with a heavy sales approach is not the answer.  Using PR to make excuses to the media about business practices, engaging in pointless CSR and making employees redundant a few at a time so no-one will notice is not going to gain anyone’s trust.

Frankly, you cannot have useful relationships with people who don’t trust you. And organisations have to earn our trust first by doing things right and understanding our concerns as much as their own.  And they’d better not call me until they can do that.


  1. Heather, just to be sure you interpret me correctly I certainly do not think that ‘managing stakeholder relationships’ has anything to do with a ‘heavvy sales approach’ to ‘customer relationship management’, which is quite a different organizational approach from stakeholder relationship management.

    In fact, my opinion is that many -if not most- customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, public policy makers and simply members of the community are not active stakeholders in that they are not always aware nor interested in ‘holding a stake’.
    Active stakeholders, whether the organization likes it or not, are those subjects aware and interested in a relationship (collaborative or adversarial) as their actions produce consequences on organizational objectives and/or viceversa.
    Therefore they decide to be stakeholders.
    Potential stakeholders, instead, are those subjects who would be interested in a relationship with the organization if made aware of its objectives.
    Of course the organization can decide not to engage in relationships with its active stakeholders, but often it is a risky decision.
    This is the reason why I believe that an effective management of the organization’s process of governing relationships with all stakeholder groups (both active and potential, according to the specific objective of the organization) is a task which public relators are fit to either be responsible for (core stakeholder publics typically whithin the realm of the function such as media, communities, public policy makers….) or should stimulate and facilitate other management functions to be responsible for (shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers…).
    Thank you for referring to my post.

  2. Tony,

    I didn’t mean to imply that you supported a heavy sales approach in respect of managing stakeholder (or consumer) relationships.

    However, I am not so sure we can separate out stakeholder relationship management from customer relationship management. Surely all customers, employees etc have a stake in an organisation by default of their exchange relationship?

    This must particularly be in the case of organisations such as British Gas where customers are engaged in repeat business through a “long-term” service.

    Surely, we don’t just become an active stakeholder because we are aware and interested in a relationship? Isn’t the important aspect the impact of our action – whether this is on the bottom-line directly or indirectly through affecting reputation?

    Maybe your definitions of stakeholders and relationships are different to mine? I see that there are basic exchange or transactional relationships which give people a stake in organisations – those are the essential ones to manage correctly in my view if the organisation is to achieve its objectives and build trust.

    If there are failings at this level of “relationship”, I believe stakeholders may become aware or active publics, on the basis that they recognise and issue and decide to do something about it. This may take the relationship to a new level – likely to be adversarial.

    I think that to become an advocate and conceive of a more engaged relationship with an organisation, we need to be confident at the transactional level and trust the organisation enough to be worthy of engaging with further.

    Are you saying that this first type of relationship is not the responsibility of PR but of those with operational remits, such as marketing (customers) and HR (employees)?

    That would leave PR managing communal relationships which exist alongside, or perhaps even separate to, transactional relationships. These involve expectations and delivery of more altrustic behaviour. It is here that I believe there is the potential to build deeper relationships – and also where the strongest confrontation occurs.

    I think you are agreeing with the role of PR in supporting organisations with their transactional relationships not just the communal ones?

    But does a functional responsibility for stakeholders (or publics) work anymore? Boris Johnson is Mayor of London not just a British Gas consumer. And, like me, any customer can be a blogger and reach a wider audience with our views.

    If organisations don’t build trust through the exchange part of their operations, I don’t see the point in any other attempt to build relationships that have any more meaning. You can’t manage a reputation if the basics aren’t right.

  3. Heather, from a public relations professional point of view (this is where I differ from Freeman’s legitimate academic description) it serves no practical purpose to consider all customers, or all shareholders, or all employess as stakeholders.

    Stakeholders define themselves, it is not the organization who decided who they are.

    To ‘hold a stake’ for our profession’s sake, implies awareness of the organization’s objectives and interest in inducing consequences.

    This is why I differentiate active from potential.

    While the first decides itself to be so, and therefore a pull approach from our point of view is much more effective and (usually) less costly (at least from an exteral cost perspective).

    The second category gets involved only if, when and where the organization decides to make it aware….thus implying a more push approach (therefor ususally more costly).

    Believe me if I say that this distinction is terrifically effective and efficient, and it is only a consequence to pass on to the role of public relator inside or for an organization.

    Once the organization’s strategy (the path which leads from its mission to its vision) is clear in your mind, your role is to listen to the expectancies of those highly selected active stakeholders yoou have decided for various reasons to listen to, interpret them to your dominant coalition so that the various implementative phases of the strategy may consider also those expectancies in deciding how to go about reaching those specific objectives.

    Each phase, in turn, will inevitably bump into other active stakeholders which also need to be listened to, while the organization, by its implementative activities, will inevitably awaken other potential stakeholders who the organization may or may not be happy to have, at this point, as active stakeholders (once they have become aware and interested in a relationship adversarial or collaborative as it may be).

    So, as active stakeholdership increases as the organization implements its business plan, the public relator will be gratified and the organization will save time and money to enlarge its pull rather than its push approach, thus also depolluting the increasingly harmful communication environment.

    Of course here the core versus extended competencies of the public relator come right in front.

    Relationship systems with media, public policy, community, opinion leader and activist stakeholder groups are ‘normally’ under the direct responsibility of the public relator in many organizations, while those with the financial, consumer, employee, supplier and other communities normally are undre the responsibiity of the respective management function.

    From here the reason why the ‘reflective’ and the ‘educative’ roles of public relations are intertwined, interdependent and relflect the only public relations, in my view, worth calling ‘strategic’.

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