Tuesday, January 22, 2008

American Trust

As a new year unfolds, with elections in the air, trust continues to stand out as the virtue we all crave the most. Indeed, it is at the foundation of every communications program we execute, because every corporate client wants to increase the level of trust between itself and its constituents.

Several years ago, I heard a presentation on trust by a Wall Street Journal reporter (whose name, unfortunately, I can no longer recall). Many of the things he said about the importance of trust in our society I found enlightening — particularly because the PR business is based on building it. What follows is a combination of my thoughts and his.

“America’s capitalistic society is often portrayed as a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is out for numero uno. While there is a certain truth to that, there is more to it than that. It is probably a more peaceful, friendly and trusting place than most of the alternatives. In fact, trust is so ubiquitous here, we don’t even think about it.”

Very true! In fact, most people seem unaware of the pervasiveness of trust. Sometimes people take advantage of that, as did the 9/11 hijackers and other terrorists and their sympathizers who live among us.

“The analogy is traffic. In the United States tens of millions of drivers make their way to and fro each day in their personal automobiles, in traffic that is regulated by red lights, speed limits, rules for passing and so forth. These rules, to be sure, are backed up by the threat of state force: the police issue tickets for relatively minor offenses and will arrest drivers for more serious ones, such as drunk driving. But if obedience to the rules of the game depended solely on the certainty of police action, the system would break down. Anyone who has been in a cab in a Third World city knows exactly what I mean. These are places where people use horns instead of brakes.

“Our daily lives are built on this trust. For one thing, in a society based on free exchange, people have to please us to get our business. We thus expect to be treated better at Federal Express than the local Post Office. And many of us throughout the U.S. (maybe not in New York City) leave our car doors unlocked. We order things from stores and trust they will be delivered to our homes. We put our money in the bank and leave it there. We invest it in mutual funds. We order something via the internet and know we will receive it. The more we feel we can trust, the less hassle we have.

“In his book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama points out that high-trust societies like the U.S. sometime make markets more cost effective than they do in low-trust societies because transactional costs are lower.”

As public relations professionals, we understand more readily than many others the price companies pay when lack of trust suddenly becomes a public issue.

As we have watched executives being led off in handcuffs, we know that the market is not value free. “To the contrary, we believe that the market, at least in the long run, elevates the straight and narrow over the quick and easy. Life here is conclusive on that point.”

The simple precept definitely motivates me — and I hope others in the communications business — to continue building upon our foundation of trust … for our clients and everyone else.

Technorati Tags: trust, foundation of trust, virtue, Wall Street Journal, Francis+Fukuyama, high trust societies, business, communications, public relations

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