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Why PR is needed to bring back authentic trustworthy brands 

Samantha Hogg – owner and MD of GinjaNina 

In my book, Making Hotdogs: A quirky guide to building a career in PR and making life f’n awesome, I look back over thirty years of public relations (PR) and how much business and life has changed. It’s become very clear that where PR has always been utilised to create awareness, educate, and shape perceptions, its role over the last decade has evolved immensely with building trust becoming a key driver.  

A cycle of distrust has culminated in 2022 being a watershed year in business where the issue of trust needs to be acknowledged and addressed head-on. This cycle was undoubtedly spurred on by Covid-19 as employees, consumers and businesses all struggled to create stability in a world where ‘anything can happen’ took on a new, very real meaning. We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, between the pandemic, local Government instability and now the war between Russia and Ukraine. Prices are soaring, unemployment has sky-rocketed, violence is an everyday occurrence, and health and relationships can no longer taken for granted. We have learnt valuable lessons in harsh and extremely hard times, and it has changed what we need and how we manage our brand interactions.  

This change has been coming for some time now. People have been demanding more from brands and business over the last five years or more, which explains why customer experience has become a key focus area for so many organisations. But it is not just about trusting brands, we don’t trust each other either, which makes building any trust at all a challenge from the outset.  

People have lost confidence in themselves and in others, the pandemic ripped away so much as the waves surged through everybody’s lives creating havoc, taking lives and lives and livelihoods with it. A general skepticism has made the job of brand building much harder. As a result, people are now way more circumspect about what and who they interact with, and ultimately trust. 

We like to say that these are unprecedented times, almost always in utter disbelief, often immobilised by trauma. But we are right, these times are indeed extraordinary, but it doesn’t mean that we carry on doing what we normally do in business. Now is the time to question what works and what doesn’t, consider how we do business, how we communicate and how we manage things and tweak or change them to ensure that you are successfully reaching your audience in a manner that works given the drastic change of circumstances. 

Within all of this, I am in the middle of a book launch tour for Making hotdogs, where I am singing the praises of PR, and how it is not utilised nearly enough, nor is it considered as a strategic and valuable business tool by enough brands. In reality, there is no better way to position and truly shape a brand, its ethics, integrity, and soul. PR well and truly lives a brand, it has depth and the necessary complexity that is needed to address the distrust, but at the same time, it is also agile and can adapt really quickly to changing circumstances.  While PR may not own the brand, in my view, it certainly represents what the brand stands for. PR embodies brand integrity as it is grounded in the truth and is transparent.  

In its 22nd year, the Edelman Trust Barometer is the largest survey and foremost authority on trust in business, government, media and NGOs. This year, the survey revealed that 69% of South Africans surveyed have a tendency to distrust first, not believing information until they see evidence that something or somebody is trustworthy. 

There is an almost desperate need for business to acknowledge the distrust and then implement a communications campaign that addresses reality and builds a brand for the people, by the people. While trust has featured in this research since 2013, the only other issue raised almost as often was that of leadership.  

The desire for strong and impactful leadership is directly linked to distrust. Customers today, whether in B2C or B2B, not only want to know they can trust a brand, but more importantly, trust its leadership.  

If people are as layered as onions, how do brands show who a leader is and how they lead? Over my 30-year career, I have worked with many top executives, mostly men unfortunately, who have either spurred on excellent PR or made our goals almost completely impossible to achieve.  

These leaders and spokespeople bring depth and personality to a brand, they literally breathe life into the logo and are vital to the overall success of the communications. Through consistent and well-thought-out PR, this type of brand building will dramatically influence the levels of trust felt for a business and its brand. Conversely, it can also destroy it in a heartbeat, so good management and quality leadership is vital.  

It can’t be ‘put-on’ though, to truly address the issues at hand, the leadership required must be authentic. Leaders are being pushed harder than ever before to adapt and evolve to manage and lead disparate teams, more of which are working from home than in the office. Lives have been lost and people are no longer interested in placing their own on the line, with many having come face-to-face with the realities of poor health and death. 

On my book tour, I talk to students about the value of authenticity, honesty, and integrity. While this has long been a mantra of mine, if you embody these elements, you are already winning the race in the trust game. In the early 90’s, the media clambered to talk to any visiting executive with a foreign accent, almost believing that knew more than their local counterparts, but now it is almost the opposite, with very few believing what a visitor has to say. This distrust came from somewhere and has also been building over the years. It almost definitely emanated from watching political leaders spew nonsense or business leaders being found guilty of fraud and corruption.   

Distrust is common-place today and businesses need to acknowledge the elephant in the room and start considering how to market and communicate differently to counter the negative affects this has on a brand.  

PR should be the leading provider in this race to earn back trust, if it is not PR then what can possibly communicate more authentically with such incredible impact?