Trust, Transparency and …power!

 There are a number of very interesting discussions going on at the moment in my favourite blog, about trust , about transparency and about CSR. 

I have already nailed my colours to the mast and said that I think all communication is inherently asymmetric, because information is never shared equally between two parties, nor is interest in the discussion. A company has a lot of reasons to want to communicate some (but not all!) of the information it has, but stakeholders have a lot of voices competing for their attention, and are less likely to want to listen.  In that environment, how do you cut through the noise and give stakeholders want they want and need?

Craig Pearce makes a case for organisations being up front with the negatives, because honesty can win trust, and create a dialogue, especially if it is clear that the news will get out anyway (accelerated or not by social media).  I think a lot depends on which stakeholders you are talking about. Coming from a financial services background, I have a predilection for investor relations- and they are the ones who can kill a company. So, I am not surprised that companies have statutory obligations to release price sensitive information in a controlled manner.  Disclosure here is strictly legally controlled and required.

I am continually surprised, however, by my students’ surprise that CSR issues are not that important to customers or consumers. Every year I watch their research efforts come up with the same results- that while “nice to have”, ethical sourcing and other CSR attributes will not often win against price considerations for the majority of “the public”.

Where CSR actually bites hardest is …amongst the investors. There is an entire discipline devoted to measuring, hedging and managing corporate risk. I know, I used to work for an investment bank. And CSR risk increasingly features in that calculation of corporate risk. Don’t believe me? Check out FTSE4Good. This is above and beyond the “ethical investment” niche market.  Corporate management is taking more care these days to factor in CSR KPIs into their risk calculations- less because of fear of damaging their reputation amongst customers and more in fear of regulatory backlash.

If communication is about change (either promoting it or protecting against it, as Craig argues), then the most powerful change agents out there are the regulators, who, with one change of the law or statute, can change the rules of engagement. Because I have been a lobbyist, I never estimate the power of the politician to create havoc- intended or not- through well meaning but daft legislation.

So, I will add to my political incorrectness by arguing that not only is all communication asymmetric, but I also believe that all stakeholders are not equal, nor should they be treated as such. When resources are stretched, budgets under threat and the pressure is on, PR and communications functions need to prioritise their stakeholder communication. And it all comes down to focusing on those with the most power.


About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

4 Responses to Trust, Transparency and …power!

  1. Craig Pearce says:

    You are being pragmatic, Catherine. And there should be more of it. We might get in the ear of the dominant coalition if we did more of this. As long as we don’t compromise our own sense of morality and align our recomendations with the values of the organisation, all good.

    But, perhaps over the longer term, we might continue our crusade to help our organisations operate more in line with all our stakeholders’ perspectives and to add value to the society which gives them their ultimate licence to operate. Regulators mean a lot in the here and now, but what is the legacy of the organisation to society and the environment when those legislators are yesterday’s news?

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Catherine, I have to disagree with your statement that “all communication asymmetric.” I rather like to think that communication is a mixture of everything – bottom up, top down, sideways, symmetrical, asymmetrical…depending on the circumstances. I agree absolutely with you that not all stakeholders are equals or can be or should be treated as such.

  3. Dan Mircea says:

    i read your story on what fascinates the PR students with great interest since I am myself an associate professor with the PR and Communication Faculty, at the National School for Political and Administrative Studies (a rather long and confusing title in my oppinion) in Bucharest. the interogation of the headline of your piece poped up in my mind several times over the years. so far i could not yet come up with a decent answer since the generations of student changed and along with them the “fascination” is also different. but you are right about story-telling. to a certain point it is effective.
    Well, the real reason I dared to leave a comment here was that I noticed in your article a tendency to embrace the system theory as a valid one for developing a PR theory. my question is whether you ever considered that form a PR perspective the contingency theory or even the chaos theory are better suited to develop a PR theory.

    Dan Mircea
    Associate professor

  4. Interesting comments, Dan. I suppose I am a practitioner that hopes we can find some kind of roadmap. Chaos and contingency theories in PR seem to me to be a rather “existential” approach- a kind of shrug of the shoulders that says no theory actually applies to real life. In my experience, if you can share an understanding of how communication with stakeholders works with the dominant coalition in your organisation that is a start- but then you have to hope that stakeholders agree. My experience in intercultural communication suggests to me that there are shared understandings at least within cultural areas that allow a kind of unspoken theoretical paradigm to work.

    I find it easy to think on “big picture” terms- and hope that my story telling with my students helps them to see the big picture, rather than getting too fixated on the day-to-day mechanics of PR. Stay in touch- contact me at if you would like to pursue the conversation.

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