Monday, January 23

Restoring Public Trust

MarketWatch correspondent Thomas Kostigen released his top ten ethics breaches for 2005 last month, demonstrating once again that public leaders and companies that use communication as a means to manipulate will eventually be unmasked.

Five highlights from his list include: former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay for the rationalization campaign that he is not the face of corporate corruption; former FEMA director Michael Brown for blaming Hurricane Katrina failures on New Orleans residents; president of J. Paul Getty Trust Barry Muntz for alleged abuses of nonprofit funds to enhance his lifestyle; Exxon for ignoring shareholders' resolutions calling for it to admit carbon emissions contribute to global warming; and the American Red Cross for making us skeptical of charitable giving after workers allegedly bilked money from Hurricane Katrina victims.

Regardless of any personal opinions that surround these examples, there is little doubt that all of them have contributed to the continued erosion of public trust among private and public organizations. As a result, they reinforce the need for the public and private sector to adopt action models that either restore or preserve trust in the minds and hearts of the public.

One such action model developed by the Public Relations Coalition (a partnership of 19 major organizations representing public relations, investor relations, public affairs, and related communication disciplines) in 2003 still serves as an effective roadmap for creating an environment of accountability. Key points within the document called on corporate leaders to:

• Articulate a set of ethical principles that are closely connected to their core values and business processes and are supported with deep management commitment and enterprise-wide discipline.

• Create a process for transparency and disclosure that is appropriate for their company and industry in both current and future operations, including oversight committees, culture audits, and consistent messaging.

• Make trust and ethics a board-level corporate governance issue and establish a formal system of measuring trust that touches all parts of the organization.

Simply put: establish standards and adhere to them; encourage open communication and timely disclosure; and develop the appropriate mechanism to measure progress. It makes sense. Most breakdowns in trust occur not because of true ethical breach within the company but rather when the organization or its leadership seem to be shrouded under a veil of secrecy or are responsible for inconsistent/inaccurate messaging. In other words, sometimes it is not what you are saying, but what you haven't said that will determine how well your organization preserves public trust every day and during times of crisis.

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