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Why client relationships without trust are doomed to failure

April 26, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

The April issue of CorpComms magazine includes fascinating research about the level of trust between PR agencies and their clients.  The headline finding is that whilst over half of agencies believe they have an open and honest relationship with their clients, just 29% of in-house directors trust their agencies “absolutely”.

I believe that in life – whether personal or professional – relationships will only succeed if there is mutual trust and respect.  How can I protect my client’s reputation if we don’t have total honesty when managing a crisis?  Why would my client listen to my advice if they can’t be sure that my actions and counsel are guided by their best interests?

Insignia has the privilege of working with many senior businesspeople and it would be untenable to represent and advise them on reputation management if I didn’t trust and respect them.  Equally, I understand that the opportunity to offer communication counsel (and for that counsel to be acted upon) is based upon their trust in me and my consultancy.

Of course, trust and respect have to be earned, and this is a priority in the first few months of any new client relationship.  But unless this is achieved, the relationship will be purely transactional in nature and most likely doomed to long term failure.  It will certainly not lead to the best decision-making to build, manage and protect the organisation’s reputation.

Trust is a rare and precious commodity, but it is the essential ingredient for a successful relationship.  If you’re a client with a PR agency you don’t trust, look for another one: you cannot be making the most of your reputation.  If you’re a consultancy with a client you don’t trust, find a way of building that trust, or end the relationship.

Ultimately, I’d agree entirely with the un-named commentator in the article who said: “The relationship will only work and be of value to the client if we can have honest, open and trusting conversations.  This will not be a problem if the relationship is a genuine partnership based on mutual respect.  Without this, the relationship will be trying at best, downright demoralising at worst.  Life’s too short!”  (Well, I guess I would agree given that I was that un-named commentator!)

I’d be very interested to hear your views too.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia


I think the first principle PR professionals need to realize is that trust in the customer relationship is an outcome – not a commodity. It’s earned. Both parties, be it in a business or personal relationship, may expect it, even demand it. But that doesn’t mean it will happen.

So, how does one earn trust? It begins in the earliest portion of the ‘selling cycle’ with prospective clients and continues through the entire relationship, even to project/campaign completion or termination.

We’ve all won and lost clients in business. There are a variety of legitimate reasons tied to the business cycle – lack of budget, change of leadership, strategy and business directional change, etc. The higher the degree — built on continuously understanding the need and meeting or exceeding expectations consistently — the greater the opportunity to endure change.

There are key ingredients to trust building – empathy, understanding, candor, willingness to risk vulnerability and transparency. More often than not they’re communicated through active listening. PR practitioners need to be mindful of these as we go about our daily tactical duties and seek to serve. We and our clients will be better for it.

Thanks for researching and writing your piece. Enjoyed it and the opportunity to comment.

Comment by Ben Singer — May 1, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

You raise some very interesting issues about trust and trustworthiness of the PR industry. Because of Edelman and the World Economic Forum amongst others, publics will be aware of the apparent global crisis in trust, the so called low trust era. Much of this is due to the appalling behavior of banks and financial institutions, (critically) including their regulators. Many blue chip PR companies represented these investment banks and other players in the securitization chain. PR companies represented people like Enron and other disgraced companies that have undergone complete organizational trust failure. Have these events affected perceptions of trustworthiness of the large PR firms? Attitudinal surveys are one thing, one has to look carefully at whether clients are withdrawing from PR firm engagements as a result? Distrust needs to be validated by a behavioral change, are clients deserting PR firms in their droves? My guess would be no. This is simply because you do not need to trust a PR firm deeply to work with it, unless certain conditions are met. Under many engagement scenarios, the fundamental requirements for trust to be an issue—risk, independence, vulnerability, uncertainty—do not come into play. These situational antecedents to trust may only arise in the most difficult of PR engagements, during crisis, controversy or serious breaches of public reputation. During those situations trust may be an issue. Of course one could argue that service businesses require client trust in order to get a hire, but I think this is an entirely different type and level of trust, perhaps even the most basic form of ‘informational’ trust. I have been studying and working in the organizational trust setting for 10 years, to me it seems that the PR industry does need to do more as an industry, and as individual companies to understand the various dimensions of trust, and what role communication and reputation play in developing trust. Even Edelman, whilst positioning itself as an authority on trust is way off with its survey methods (largely confined to integrity issues) and recommended interventions to establish and repair trust. There are many ways that trust is an issue for the PR industry, not least of which is trust in the industry and corporate comms. I for one will be most interested to see if practitioners start offering specific organizational trust services for clients.

Comment by Andrew Roberts — May 2, 2012 @ 5:11 am

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