PRs, of all people, should not take things at face value. Supposedly, there’s a crisis of trust in society. The way to fix it, we are told, is to advocate more transparency, more corporate responsibility, more fairness and better corporate governance. Let’s plaster the whole edifice with apple pie whilst we’re at it.

But is there really a crisis of trust? Or are we in danger of making the wrong diagnosis and recommending the wrong remedies?

[This is a guest post by Paul Seaman, who runs his own international PR consultancy, West PR.]

Trust and PR

We are being asked to believe that Western firms, governments and other institutions have lost the trust of the people. We are told, as a consequence, they risk losing their licence to operate.

But the Edelman Trust Barometer reported last year that Russian business is more trusted than Germany’s and France’s. It asked us to believe that business in Brazil, China and India (trust levels 60-70%) were way above those in Canada, Japan and the US (50-59%).

Surely, such findings should sound warning signals and inspire us to question the premises of this debate about trust?

If you are not convinced, then just consider so-called political trust. China’s government, according to Edelman, is the most trusted on earth at 74%, compared to the US’s measly 46% (in the Obama era) and the UK’s 38% (pre-David Cameron) which, we are asked to believe, is on a par with Russia.

If these are the answers, someone’s been asking the wrong question. Or there are lots of people in the world who are – as we old Marxists used to say – not being objective.

Or they’re in denial.

Or they’ve got cognitive dissonance.

Transparency: a fault line for PR pros

Commonsense should warn us that placing transparency at the heart of political and business life effectively means promoting the notion that institutions cannot be trusted. How we can ever make a virtue of trust by institutionalising distrust is a question too few PRs ever ask.

Surely, trust means that we allow people and institutions their privacy? In his useful book, ‘Trust’, Anthony Seldon quotes the US statesman Henry Timson saying: “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him”. (Seldon also argues for lots of transparency, so he’s not the most logical guide either, but the quote is spot on.)

Surely, if every statement and action of a politician and diplomat – as WikiLeaks would like – was made transparent, politicians would avoid ever revealing the truth, or what they think, even in private among themselves in anything like formal settings. That would make them untrustworthy at virtually every level. It would drive democratic (read also corporate) accountability underground, or perhaps onto unaccountable sofa governments (kitchen Boards), in the style of Tony Blair.

The problem with the trust discussion is, I maintain, that we have confused healthy scepticism with lack of trust. The former is healthy. It forms part of our democratic heritage. But throwing away trust in the name of transparency is retrograde and corrosive. That’s why I say today’s misplaced hype about trust risks turning scepticism into soul-destroying cynicism.

Delivering on corporate social responsibility

So how does all this relate to corporate social responsibility and issues such as sustainability? Well, closely, particularly at the level of motivation. Here’s how Sandra MacLeod, CEO of Echo Research, explains what’s driving the rush to proclaim corporate responsibility practices:

“Corporate leaders are now being challenged to step up to greater commitments on sustainability, and ensure they have performance measures for behaviour directly linked to responsibility and trust if they are to succeed.” (‘A World in Trust)

The PR agency Edelman claims, according to 52% of business leaders, that the path to trust lies in treating all stakeholders as equals.

These seem obvious. But they are flawed. There’s something very much like ‘greenwash’ at the heart of it all.

Fact is, for a firm to be trusted in the long term it needs to have publicly committed itself to the maintenance of some wriggle room. Over-commit to motherhood and apple pie and you’re stuck being called out as a two-faced turncoat when the going gets rough. The minute profits drop every employee knows that a firm has to look to its economic sustainability.

Public relations 2011 free report

The public relations of telling the truth

So what do I advocate?

Well, the first thing is that we should start speaking straight. That might mean telling some harsh truths. It certainly means avoiding making misleading statements, such as, “all stakeholders are equals”. It means we should stop pretending that ‘sustainability and innovation’ are compatible bedfellows: Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction clearly suggests otherwise. The truth is that innovation, like progress, is ceaseless.

Perhaps, also, PRs should recommend that firms stop pretending – Beyond Petroleum fashion – that their social purpose is something different from what they exist to do.

Perhaps we should restate that firms are financed and owned by shareholders and that governance is about defending their interests first and foremost.

And perhaps, most of all, we should stop pretending that our western societies are sick, dishonest and corrupt.

None of what I’ve just said, however, should be taken as dismissal of CSR. I’m one of its strongest advocates.

When practiced properly it is vital and healthy. No company should be allowed or want to do massive harm to the environment or to trample on people’s rights. Respect and care is part of earning the right to remain trusted.

My point is that right now the debate about sustainability and CSR is headed in the wrong direction and is premised on notions that cannot themselves be trusted.

So is the debate about sustainability and CSR headed in the wrong direction? What about PR’s role in this dialectic? What can PR pros do about CSR – both in the organisations they work with and in society in general? Where do the responsibilities of PR professionals really lie – morally as well as professionally? How much are we meant to try and solve or, at least, address and get a dialogue going on, both internally and between our organisations and their stakeholders?

In countries as diverse as Switzerland and Nigeria, Paul Seaman has worked in environments ranging from multinational boardrooms to environmental disaster zones. He’s managed corporate, crisis and product PR and dealt with every kind of media. Today he runs his own international PR consultancy, West PR – Seaman, based in Zurich, Switzerland. He can be networked with on his blog 21st century PR issues, his LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @paulseaman .

[This post is included, with many other posts, in a free strategic PR report that can be downloaded free from this blog by email subscribing to it. The report - Public relations 2011: insights ideas issues - features professional practice-adding value from 10 global PR leaders (and me).]