How do you measure trust?


I was pleased to read an article at recently about some West Michigan companies that were named to the Forbes list of America’s 100 Most Trustworthy Companies.

Forbes was looking particularly at publicly traded companies, so their method or criteria for putting companies on the list (or not) had to do with related financial measures, such as transparent accounting, infrequent high-risk events and quality board supervision.

This is all well and good, and publicly traded companies that pass the test by these standards should be congratulated.


But there is something more that should be considered when talking about whether or not a company is trustworthy: public perception.

It is often said that trust is one of the most important aspects of interpersonal relationships. If your spouse or a boyfriend/girlfriend does something to violate trust, the relationship is almost certainly over without significant efforts to repair that trust.

Organizations, including companies, are no different. They cannot maintain positive relationships without trust.

But that trust needs to be measured in more than financial terms — regarding more than financial relationships.


As I’ve written before in this blog, the essence of public relations is relationships. That’s why it’s called public “relations.”

Many still mistake PR for publicity, even though that is merely a tool — and only one that advanced PR professionals use.

Because PR is about relationships, the quality of relationships is something PR professionals and academics measure. And one of the key measures of a quality relationship is trust.

Other indicators of quality relationships include satisfaction in the relationship, commitment to the relationship, mutual control or influence over the other in the relationship and whether the relationship is characterized as being merely an exchange relationship or more of a communal relationship with genuine concern for the well-being of the other party.

Multiple audiences

But let’s focus on trust.

How can you measure trust in ways that go beyond the Forbes criteria of financial aspects?

First of all, consider that there are other publics whose perception of trust is important. They include customers, government officials, potential employees and others.

Secondly, trust, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder or the perception of those various publics. The existence of trust cannot be assumed by examination of corporate accounting practices, stellar as they may be.

Dimensions of trust

Researchers who have studied this have determined three dimensions of trust: they include competence, or the belief that an organization has the ability to do what it says it will do; integrity, the belief that an organization is fair and just and dependability, the belief that an organization will consistently do what it says it will do.

You can see financial aspects to each dimension, but you can also see how such trust perceptions can vary depending on the nature of the relationship with each public. Add to that the fact that research has shown trust to vary over time, that it is culturally rooted and communication based, and you can see how public relations professionals need to make trust a regular topic as they counsel management.

I have no doubt that we have many trustworthy companies in West Michigan.

But I think that trust goes beyond financial metrics resulting in flattering magazine articles.

Making a magazine list is good publicity, but it’s not complete PR.

I would hope our region’s CEOs and PR professionals are building and maintaining trust at deeper levels, beyond financials, with many publics. I would advise that they do so by talking and listening to those publics directly and frequently.

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