Establishing Trust is a Risky Proposition

In my last post (‘The Innovation Paradox: Risk versus Progress’) I reviewed and commented on the 2015 Trust Barometer’s findings and Richard Edelman’s seven imperatives for rebuilding trust in light of the public’s concern about innovation and the pace of change. In that post I suggested Edelman’s imperatives reminded me of the work that has been done in the field of risk communications over the last 30 years ago and how Richard’s suggestions are aligned with the research on the importance of trust and transparency.

My Introduction To Risk Communication

Relatively early in my public relations career (1987), I had the good fortune of securing a large, long-term client, an agriculture chemical manufacturer and warehouse, whose international headquarters in Basel Switzerland mandated that all their operations engage in an open and ongoing dialogue with their communities on the safe manufacture of chemical products. It was the first significant and meaningful community relations program that I developed and my first exposure to a new and growing field of public relations practice and research: Risk Communications.

The initiative at this local plant in south-western Ontario, about 60 miles west of downtown Toronto, was actually part of a program initiated by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (now called the Chemical Industry Association of Canada) called “Responsible Care” — to inform, engage and rebuild trust in the importance of chemicals and chemistry in our daily lives. According to the CIAC’s history on Responsible Care, “Canada’s chemistry CEOs faced the faced: the public did not trust the industry. Building public trust would require something above and beyond the law: a commitment to doing the right thing”.

This “made-in-Canada” program, which soon became the international standard for all chemical industry outreach and engagement adopted by chemical industry associations in 60 countries, was founded on the principle that the public had the right to be informed and engaged — a counter-intuitive perspective for most who worked in the industry that was separated from the community by barbed-wire fences.

Lead by the public affairs team at the Chemical Manufactures Association in Washington, DC — the community relations component of the Responsible Care program was rolled out across North America by two of the most effective trainers that I had ever met — Erin Donovan and Dr. Vince Covello. Along with my client’s plant manager, we attended a three-day training program that combined the theory and principles of this new field of risk communications and hands-on community relations/engagement principles and practices. We were inspired and committed to immediately incorporating these new learnings into our practices and our plans.

While building trust with the public shouldn’t have been a “game-changing” idea, it is important to remember the context in which this initiative was launched. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of “industrial” accidents captured the headlines and concern of the public and government officials. Names like “Love Canal”, “Three-Mile Island”, “Bhopal” and “Chernobyl” unleashed a growing sense of unease and fear for communities that hosted chemical and energy plants. These names soon became synonymous with how not to communicate during a community disaster. And communications researchers like Drs. Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff and James Flynn (no relation) soon began to study why certain publics responded in certain ways to concerns about risks while others responded in nearly the exact opposite manner.

In 1988, Covello and Allen publish a manifesto-style list of principles that risk communicators should live by in order to build trust and credibility with their communities.

Here are the Seven Cardinal Rules:

1.  Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner;

2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts;

3. Listen to your audience;

4. Be hones, frank and open;

5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources;

6. Meet the needs of the media; and,

7. Speak clearly and with compassion.

If you look closely at Edelman’s seven imperatives, you will see some similarity to the nearly 30-year old cardinal rules written by Covello and Allen.

Risk communications researchers and practitioners, were well ahead of public relations scholars in identifying  two-way symmetrical, relationship-based communications as the primary means and methodology to creating trust with stakeholders and priority publics. While much of the foundational risk communication research was done in the era before social media, I still believe that the principles and imperatives identified three decades ago hold true for the practice of public relations today.

Here is my short summary on the evolution of the field or risk communications from a paper I presented at a conference a number of years ago:

In 1989, after communication missteps at Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Love Canal that caused community outrage and fear (Covello, 1992), the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) initiated a number of research studies to understand how the public reacts to risk issues and, more specifically, how to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between organizations and the public on risk elements. For the NRC, risk communication was “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions; often communications involves multiple messages about the nature of the risk(s) or express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional entities or organizations for risk management” (Vogt & Sorensen, 1994, p. 20).

For government agencies the development of an interactive process of exchange with the public on sensitive and, sometimes, controversial environmental issues was often very difficult. Many witnessed the almost impossible challenge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faced in its early days of the Love Canal crisis, to build trust and credibility with the community of Niagara Falls, NY. According to the then EPA administrator, W.D. Ruckelshaus, the only way to achieve trust with the public was to involve them in defining and deciding acceptable levels of environmental risk (Ruckelshaus, 2001). However, building trust and developing an interactive process of exchange with the public isn’t a typical public affairs model within government agencies. According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000), “often, but certainly not always, government public relations programs deal with one-way communication directed to constituents” (p. 490).

In what is generally regarded as one of the first attempts to define the field of risk communication, social scientists Vincent T. Covello and Fred Allen joined together in drafting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Seven Cardinal Rules for Risk Communication. Within that 1988 guidance document, Covello and Allen stated that “risk communication is any purposeful exchange of scientific information between interested parties regarding health or environmental risks” (as quoted USEPA, 1992, p. 37).

With respect to the first cardinal rule, “accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner,” Covello (1992) stated that, “the goal of risk communication in a democracy should be to produce an informed public that is involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful, solution-focused, and collaborative; it should not be to diffuse public concerns or replace action” (p. 13). For the third rule, “listen to the public’s specific concerns,” Covello (1992) says that “people in the community are often more concerned about trust, credibility, control, competence, voluntariness, fairness, caring and compassion than about mortality statistics and the details of quantitative risk assessment. If you do no listen to people, you cannot expect them to listen to you. Communication is a two-way activity” (p. 14).

In 1996, the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management published its definition of risk communication: “An interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 21). That same year, the NRC, whose 1989 definition set the stage for a more involved and engaging process, stated that: “Many decisions can be better informed and their information base can be more credible if the interested and affected parties are appropriately and actively involved” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 20). More recently, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, in response to the Gulf War Illness crisis, stated in 2000 that “risk communication should be a dynamic process that is responsive to input from several sources, changing concerns of affected populations, modifications in scientific risk evidence, and newly identified needs for communication” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 19).

According to Heath and Palenchar (2000), risk communication “is a sub-discipline of public relations devoted to address risks that befall citizens who live and work near dangerous industries or who encounter potentially harmful technologies” (p. 131). It is the act of conveying or transmitting information between interested parties about (a) levels of health risks; (b) the significance of meaning of health or environmental risks; (c) decisions, actions or policies aimed at managing or controlling health or environmental risks (Covello, von Winterfeldt, & Slovic, 1986, p. 171).

According to Rich, Griffin and Friedman (1999), public involvement in risk decisions is critical, “effective risk communication that allows citizens to participate fully in decisions about those risks is essential to democratizing our society’s allocation of risks” (p. 194). Covello and Sandman (2001) point to the ultimate success of risk communication:

“We knew that it was going to alter the ways in which the public deals with organizations about risk, and in which organizations deal with the public. What we did not realize was that it would transform the way organizations think of themselves as well. We have discovered, at the most fundamental level that engaging in meaningful, respectful, and frank dialogue with the public involves changes in basic values and organizational culture. But we have also found that much more often than not, the improvements that come of it all prove well worth the effort (p. 177).”


Covello, V.T. (1992). Informing people about risks from chemicals, radiation, and other toxic substances: A review of obstacles to public understanding and effective risk communication. In W. Leiss (Ed.). Prospects and problems in risk communications (pp. 1-49). Waterloo, ON: University of Waterloo Press.

Covello, V.T., von Winterfeldt, D., & Slovic, P. (1986) Risk communication: A review of the literature. Risk Abstracts 3 (4), 171-82.

Covello, V.T., & Sandman, P.M. (2001). Risk communication: Evolution and revolution (pp 164- 177). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cutlip, S.M., A.H. Center, and G.M. Broom. (2000). Effective public relations (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heath, R.L. & Palenchar, M. (2000). Community relations and risk communication: A longitudinal study of the impact of emergency response messages. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12, 131-161

Rich, R.C., Griffin, R.J., & Friedman, S.M. (1999). The challenge of risk communication in a democratic society: Introduction. Risk: Health, Safety & Environment, 10, 189-196.

Ruckelshaus, W.D. (2001). Ethics and social regulation in America (pp. 43-52). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (1992, June). Environmental equity: Reducing risk for all communities. Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. Washington, D.C.

What Do You Think…Does The Pace of Innovation Impact Trust?

Following yesterday’s post on the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings, I thought that I would test the hypothesis that Richard proposed during his presentation that the pace of innovation has had a impact on organizational trust. Please take a minute to provide you thoughts on this question.

Thanks for your input. I will publish the results tomorrow afternoon.

The Innovation Paradox: Risk versus Progress

I had the pleasure of attending the release of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer Annual Global Study results in Toronto on 3 February 2015 at the kind invitation of Bob Richardson (a long-time friend from our days as student leaders at Carleton University). I also made the journey in from Kitchener to see my fellow A.W. Page Society board colleague, Richard Edelman, whom I’ve always respected as one of the profession’s most influential thought leaders.

The bottom line from Richard’s fast-paced presentation on the global results is that trust, as an earned outcome of stakeholder relationships, took a beating in 2014. All sectors (business, government, NGOs and media) experienced an “evaporation of trust” due in part to a number of global crises and events that caused the public and influencer groups to have less trust across all institutions.

Among the most interesting findings from the report, especially for Canadian institutions, is that while the general public’s perceptions of trust in these four institutions remained relatively flat over the year, the views of the “Informed Public” — those Canadians that dig deeper into public issues — were more negative than in 2014. In Canada NGOs were the most trusted, followed by government as the second most trusted institutions. The Trust Barometer story doesn’t paint a good picture for the business community (a decrease of 15%) or the media (down 11%) in these challenging times. Overall Canadian’s perception of trust — as measured on the Global Trust Index, has moved the country from a nation of “trusters” in 2014 (60%) to a more neutral position with a score of 53%.

The good news for Canada, on the global stage, is that while our trust in our own country has declined seven percent over the last year, “Brand Canada” — trust in nation where a company is headquartered — vaulted Canada into the global leadership position tied with Sweden, Germany and Switzerland (sounds like the results of the World Junior Hockey Championships). This is great news for Canadian organizations and companies who compete in global markets — by positioning the brand,  product or service as “Made in Canada” — global consumers will have a greater trust in your company’s offerings.

However my most significant take away yesterday was the trust results related to the public’s perceptions of innovation and the implementation of new technologies. According to the findings “There is a new factor depressing trust: the rapid implementation of new technologies that are changing everyday life, from food to fuel to finance.” The report states that “the Trust Barometer has uncovered a profound concern for the pace of change. By a two-to-one margin, respondents in all nations feel the new developments in business are going too fast and there is not adequate testing.” The study showed that 51% of global public believe that the pace of change in business and industry is “too fast” compared to 28% who feel it is “too slow”.

As Richard states in the study’s executive summary “Business sees innovation as imperative to competitiveness but fails to grasp the underlying problem of resistance based on fear of the unknown. The source of anxiety in this new age of disruption is lack of understanding…the consequences of being glossed over, from risk to environment, privacy violations and loss of jobs in disrupted industries.”

To overcome this growing distrust, especially as it relates to the public’s concern about innovation and the pace of change, Richard offered seven (7) imperatives:

1. Businesses must have a new aspiration — in addition to seeking the public’s acceptance of its license to operate it must also seek the license to lead.

2. Organizations must work with government — in most jurisdictions throughout the world (and true here in Canada), the public sees government as the regulator of change and innovation. Government gives you credibility and the confidence of the people.

3. Be fair and be seen to be fair — “pay your taxes” and help lift up the dreams and aspirations of the middle and lower classes.

4. There must be a new Innovation Compact — there must be a real and realized opportunity for individuals to opt out of innovation. “The individual must feel empowered to speak out, to be the other half of the innovation engine along with the genius programmer or scientist, to be a key part of the process of accepting the new”.

5. Companies must solve the big global problems — the supply chains in Africa, the threat of infectious disease, the lack of  water in cities like Sao Paulo, to name just a few of the most pressing issues facing the world.

6. Realize the importance and value of “peer-to-peer” engagement — especially within your own workforces. The public trusts your employees but they don’t trust your CEOs.

7. Commit to radical transparency — make commitments and keep them. According to the study “the number one way to add trust in the fast-changing marketplace is to have business make test results publicly available for review (80 percent) or to have a partnership with an academic institution (75 percent). Transparency becomes the fuel for discussion of innovation, the rational backbone.”

Richard closed off his remarks with a quote from Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum: “Now is the time to minimize risk and build trust by meeting legitimate expectations of all their stakeholders…to find solutions to today’s most pressing social problems.”

The minimization of risk (real and perceived) and the building of trust has been a long-time area of research and interest for me. In my next post, I will harken back 30 years to the ground-breaking studies from the field of “risk communications” that may help us make sense of the fears, concerns and perceptions of risk as it relates to this innovation paradox.

I’m back…did you miss me?

It’s been far too long since I last attempted to post my thoughts about public relations and professional communications. As most writers and researchers know and understand, it takes a concentrated effort to battle the simple distractions in life that provide the simplest excuses not to write. My me it has been a combination of reasons but the most important has been a lack of confidence that my voice or my thoughts matter.

Writing is not my natural communications skill — those who know me (and my family) know that having kissed the Blarney stone at such a young age, I was blessed with the proverbial Irish gift of speech. Give me a microphone, a stage or a classroom and I could speak for days. But put a blank sheet of paper or computer screen in front of me and the gift of speech fails to translate into the gift of the written word. So trying to capture my thoughts in manner that I believe can make a positive contribution to our already overloaded information world has been a struggle. Others have and continue to write about issues that are impacting public relations and professional communications — with great ease and great impact. Some researchers churn out study after study on micro and macro issues, sometimes leaving me to think that it’s already been said and studied.

However, as we well know, it hasn’t all been said and certainly in this discipline and professional field of study and practice, there is still much to know and understand. So my goal in 2015 is to make an efficient (an hopefully effective) contribution to the fields of public relations, crisis communications, reputation management and behavioural communication.

I will endeavour to bring you timely professional and scholarly information and insights but not overload you with details about my dogs, my favourite meals or my attempts to go back to the gym and get physically and mentally fit. While my social media knowledge is fairly good, I must confess that I’m still trying to learn the protocols of an effective blogger. So be patient with my lack of sophistication. There are some bloggers that have been writing for decades and have incorporated the latest platforms and apps — I admire their efforts greatly and hope that over time (and use of these platforms) that I may reach a greater level of expertise. But until then, this blog will a work in progress.

I hope that my thoughts and perspectives provoke you to think, ponder and comment on the issues that I believe are important to both the scholarship and practice of these disciplines.