In public relations “trust” can be defined in a number of ways, some of which are the very reason why the media hates PR so much. It’s not always about confidence and dependability, as some would define the concept – trust in organizations like BP has far more complex definitions and meanings.
When Bob Dudley said “We will earn back trust in BP and begin to restore the company’s battered reputation,” to a bunch of business leaders in London, he knew exactly which buttons to push. To help the reader better understand the subtleness, consider that Dale E. Zand introduced three concepts to help defining the idea of “trust in organizations” – influence, mutual control, and vulnerability. The words are self explanatory, but not enough to translate fully what Dudley is doing.
Move the focus over to Marcia L. Watson, who defines in plain English the three critical elements of trust (ability, benevolence, and integrity) identified in 1995 by Mayer, Davis and Schoorman:
- Ability is a group of skills, competencies, or characteristics that enable the trustee to have influence within a specific domain. This is similar to competence or perceived expertise.
- Benevolence is the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good for the trustor, putting to one side his egoistic profit motives, and generally always acting in the interest of the trustor. This suggests the trustee has an attachment to the trustor …
- Integrity involves the trustor’s perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles acceptable to the trustor.
Sure, the above model is not universally accepted. In fact, there are a number of treaties and works revolving around the same topic. However, these concepts are significant to translate empirically that metaphysical “feeling” you get when reading headlines such as the one leading into this essay.
Sure BP will earn some of the trust it lost during the Gulf of Mexico events that stained the brand. But what’s the cost? And what are the means?
Dudley doesn’t come in front of an audience of ordinary people to talk about trust. He knows that he cannot start the PR dance with them just yet. Instead, he chooses the CBI annual conference. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) is the premier lobbying organization for UK business on national and international issues. This is where the dies are rolled, and if you can read between the lines, BP’s intent becomes more than apparent.
BP wants to keep doing business in the US, and will return to drilling in deep waters off the US coast.
“The deep waters are becoming an increasingly important source of energy to fuel the global economy,” Dudley said in a statement. “And we are one of only a handful of companies with the financial and technological strength to undertake development projects in these difficult geographies.”
This statement is focused on ability. The financial ability is relatively shaken, with BP committing over $30 billion to pay for the recent oil spill in the Gulf. Add to this the loss during the spill, the lower value of their stock, and more. Yet BP still has financial ability – the message is clear as clear can get.
Let’s move on to benevolence. Dudley reminded the business leaders present at the conference, that BP was the largest producer of oil and gas in the US as well as a major employer, with 23,000 people on its payroll.
“I did not become chief executive of BP in order to walk away from the US. BP will not be quitting America,” he said.
The altruism in this statement alone is tears jerking. If the US is still not grateful for BP’s constant efforts to better the country’s economy, they should be (!). Sarcasm is often misunderstood online, so take my previous statement with the necessary grain of salt. Understand this: BP will not be quitting America because they need to be there to prosper. Mentioning the 23,000 on the payroll is good PR, but BP is more interested in generating good will to continue drilling in deep waters off the US coast.
Last, but not least, integrity – and Dudley is a master: “The first thing to say is that we have stopped the leak and made huge progress in cleaning up the spill. Second, our containment and clean-up efforts have gotten results. Third, we are meeting our commitments as a responsible party of this accident.”
Regaining trust is more than an art, especially in BP’s core industry. But Dudley knows the drill, he knows the business like no other. He will probably succeed, but he’ll need to put more in the game than promises and PR lingo. The propaganda no longer works, and the BP CEO should be speaking to a different audience. Credibility, as an essential trust factor, comes to play.
Brunswick Group is the outside PR agency for BP.