Too much trust?

Surprising discussions at this year's BledCom Symposium, the annual gathering where public relations scholars and practitioners discuss the latest communication and management problems

Trust is not in crisis; leadership is. Moreover, trust is not in decline; on the contrary, trust is in abundance - perhaps too much so - or else there would not be so much disappointment about the failures of companies, executives, politicians, governments and others. 

Dedicated to trust and reputation, the 26th edition of BledCom, Europe’s unique and boutique conference bringing together both practitioners and PR academics, left participants with plenty of food for thought and provided them with equal amounts of fantastic examples and case studies. 

The conference was opened by Rupert Younger from Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation, who persuasively argued that trust is not in decline especially when considering how much surprise, astonishment and disappointment there still among people towards the misbehaviour of organizations. Moreover, in linking trust with reputation, Young argued that the major results were when a mixture of both competence (what an organization can do – such as build cars, extract oil, provide financial services etc) and character (how the organization says it does it) are at odds with the organization’s actions (boasting of customer service on one hand, dragging passengers off a plane on the other). For that, Younger argued, companies should place more focus on their purpose and consider embracing causes and becoming activists, like clothing company Patagonia. However, Younger admitted that this path could present quite some risk: activism may work in North America, but not as well somewhere else and thus represents a higher level of risk for organisations that are either are American and trying to embrace activism elsewhere or are European and attempt to roll out the approach

Several papers and presentations explored the concept of trust and pointed out the variety of definitions out there, as well as the assumption that we all speak about the same thing when in fact we aren’t. Chiara Valentini (Jyvaskyla University School of Business and Economics) provided a compelling review of literature, while Alastair McCapra, chief executive of  CIPR – Chartered Institute of Public Relations, questioned the concept of trust and the way it is measured in Edelman’s Trust Barometer; while Natalie Doyle Oldfield of Success Through Trust presented her model to evaluate trust. Needless to say, participants launched a call to approach more cautiously and critically the concept of trust and its operationalization, as well as its link with reputation. 

Other papers explored the relationship between trust and reputation, exploring a variety of contexts: from academic reputation and the now-fashionable university rankings (Ana Tkalak Vercic, University of Zagreb, Croatia and Dejan Vercic, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia), to the fossil fuel industry (Beata Kviatek, Univerity of Applied Sciences Groeningen, the Netherlands) to Hot Yoga (Antonia Rizzo, Canadian Force Morale and Welfare Services, Canada) or an unexpected discussion about secret services and their reputation, brought up by Denisa Hejlova of Charles University (Czeck Republic). 

As usual, BledCom did not disappoint, managing to provide a programme truly focused on the topic proposed and providing participants both with plenty of inspiration as well as sufficient breaks to network… all in a wonderfully and stunning setting too. Finally, this year’s symposium was marked by a shared sense of unease with how certain technological and political trends are taking us contrasted with a sense of quiet optimism that education, critical thinking and open discussion can provide a way out. 

Image: by Human write at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8768573

Ana Adi

Dr. Ana Adi is a professor of public relations and corporate communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She is the coordinator of PR2025, a delphi method study aiming to identify the technical and business competences PR practitioners should focus on to stay relevant and confident in the mid-term and editor of Protest Public Relations: Communicating Dissent and Activism (Taylor & Francis, 2018).