Leaders from 19 professional communication organizations attending the PR Coalition summit earlier this year weighed in with ideas and strategies for restoring public trust in corporate America. The summit examined three specific aspects of trust: ethics, disclosure and transparency, and trust measurement. Communicators reached consensus on three major industry-wide recommendations to CEOs:
1. CEOs should articulate a set of ethical principles closely connected to their core business processes and supported with deep management commitment and enterprise-wide discipline. CEOs need to develop a statement of purpose and governance that incorporates ethics training and ethics as part of evaluations.
2. CEOs should create a process for transparency that is appropriate for current and future operation conditions. It should include an oversight committee, culture audit and consistent messaging. CEOs should ensure that they have professional, competent PR counsel who would serve as a strategic integrator, champion, bridge builder, catalyst, facilitator and record keeper for appropriate transparency.
3. CEOs should establish a formal system to measure trust as a business standard for benchmarking. CEOs should make trust a corporate governance issue and a board priority tied to compensation.
Communicators at the summit also spent time defining organizational trust and discussing its multi-dimensional value. In her remarks on behalf of ABC, Tamara Gillis, ABC, Ed. D., noted that organizational trust is an international business imperative. Trust affects an organization's ability to develop and sustain relationships with partners and publics. Trust is "social capital" measurable against the corporate bottom line and is culturally defined by rituals and religion.
Trust has a direct effect on an organization's ability to cope with change and crisis. Employee job satisfaction, productivity and team building are affected by trust. In addition, high levels of organizational trust correlate to lower incidence of litigation and legislative action, according to the 2000 ABC Research Foundation study "Measuring Organizational Trust: A Diagnostic Survey and International Indicator."
The study, conducted by Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ph.D., Kathleen Ellis, Ph.D., and Ruggero Cesaria, and sponsored by United Technologies, provides a look in depth at the importance of organizational trust and offers a diagnostic measurement tool for assessing trust within an organization.
Gillis noted that organizational trust is rooted in two communication theories that help explain how people interact within organizations:
* Social exchange theory assumes that people gauge the outcomes of interactions and rationally choose the action that will provide the best result for them based on the track record of past exchanges, shared values and communication strategies.
* Cost/reward theory assumes that relationships are shaped by rewards and costs. Opportunistic behaviors occur because parties in the exchange perceive that the reward outweighs the cost (sanction).
The first theory argues that trust prevails even when opportunism might rationally be expected; the frequency of interactions encourages trustworthy behavior, even if there is an opportunity to be less than trustworthy or when no sanctions against such behavior exist. The second assumes that untrustworthy behavior will be curbed by controls.
"Measuring Organizational Trust" summarizes business communicators" and organizational development experts' understanding of organizational trust: "The organization's willingness, based upon its culture and communication behaviors in relationships and transactions, to be appropriately vulnerable, based on the belief that another individual, group or organization is competent, open and honest, concerned, reliable and identified with common goals, norms and values. …