This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer was a stark look at the reality of public perception of businesses. A deep mistrust has settled over the actions of businesses, the media and government with over half the respondents stating that capitalism as it works today does more harm than good in the world.
In a complex and multifaceted sector like energy the report provides some useful takeaways and considerations from a stakeholder communication point of view. For example, the report found that out of the four groups of NGO, Government, Media and Business not one was considered both ethical and competent.
Businesses were found to be more competent (only slightly – 14 on a sliding scale of -50 to +50) but less ethical at -2. There’s definite room for improvement. And lots of it. For companies working in the energy sector this presents an opportunity to review how and what they’re communicating to different stakeholder groups. Especially because according to the Barometer what businesses are perceived to be best at is:
- Generating value for owners
- Being the engine of innovation
- Driving economic prosperity
Opportunity for change
At least two of those areas are prime stakeholder communications for the energy and, in particular, the renewables sector. As the wider public begins to think more consciously about what they consume, their impact on the environment and the ethical implications of purchases, communicating sustainability efforts with transparency and regularity is becoming a necessity for any business in this area.
Results from the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that the public is more forgiving of mistakes if a company or business is believed to be ethical. Essentially, try to do good and we’ll forgive a few mistakes.
This is both interesting and shaky ground. On one hand, it offers the opportunity for energy-related businesses to realign their values and work alongside PR and comms teams to build strong two-way communications between the company and stakeholders. On the other it could potentially lead to businesses paying lip service to ethical and/or sustainable practices and mistakenly believing they’ll always be forgiven if they at least look like they’re trying.
Increasingly, this latter approach is difficult for businesses to get away with and is a big reason why public relations consultancy and guidance at a senior level is the smart move for companies operating in a world of mistrust and misinformation as the report from Edelman indicates.
The way forward
The results from the Barometer indicate that businesses are perceived unlikely to be both competent and ethical which means over the course of the next year businesses have a choice to confirm or disprove this through their actions and words. Listening and responding, rather than pushing out a singular message, will become an important part of any public relations strategy. As the climate emergency, issues around energy generation and supply, and consumer consumption continue to be at the forefront of the news agenda, energy sector businesses will need to break out of entrenched strategies and tactics to engage with stakeholders in a more transparent, trust-building way.