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How do you manage trust in a distrusting world?

Wednesday 20, Jun 2018

Trust is critical for any successful organisational-public relationship. In fact, some scholars have suggested that society could not act without trust. And globally acclaimed trust expert Rachel Botsman even described the concept in her book, ‘Who can you trust?’, as “liquid gold”. Recent global events however, have undermined trust in many of society’s major institutions and organisations. Following on from the global financial crisis, we have seen political parties, businesses, banks, media publications and most recently social media networks being exposed for significant breaches of public trust. As a result industry professionals and academics alike have been professing that the world is experiencing a crisis in trust.

This is a statement global communications agency, Edelman, can back up with data. Releasing their 18th Annual Trust Barometer in January this year – which measures public trust across 28 countries in the four major institutions of government, media, business and NGO’s – the most recent report revealed that public trust has hit historic lows. In what Edelman President and CEO, Richard Edelman, describes as the fourth wave of the trust tsunami (how visual is that!) the current macro-environment, categorised by change, disruption and digitisation is challenging public trust in all institutions as we know it. What’s interesting is that the Annual Trust Barometer report itself seems to be drawing more and more attention as the years go on. This year I have seen the report referenced and the topic of trust (or at least our lack of it) splashed across publications including The Australian, The Financial Review, The Economist and Harvard Business Review. Perhaps this is due to the growing credibility of the data, or perhaps this is a reflection of the conversations now happening in many boardrooms around the world – what can we about trust?

It's the question I end with, when explaining my PhD research topic to Queensland-based PRIA fellow, Eva Ford-Murphy when we recently caught up in Brisbane. And like many others I’ve had this conversation with, I can see how that phrase peaks an interest and then leads to an immediate reflection on her own organisation. As PR professionals I think maintaining trust with stakeholders is something we all strive for, that’s pretty much relationship management 101 and Eva agrees with me there. But when it seems the world is now more distrusting than ever, what can we as communicators do about it without running the risk of sounding tokenistic?

I’ll admit I don’t have the answers (or at least not yet) but it’s why I believe there has never been a more poignant time for us to better understand how public distrust in institutions is impacting trust relationships at the organisational level. My hope is that my research at QUT will act as a first step in widening our lens on trust and help to address some of these complex challenges we as PR practitioners face in today’s world.

If you are interested in finding out more about this research project or would like to be involved please feel free to contact Ellen @

By Ellen Tyquin, Donald Dyer & PRIA Scholar, PhD Student at Queensland University of Technology


Edelman (2018). 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Rachel Botsman (2017). Who can you trust? How technology brought us together and why it might drive us apart.