PR, Journalism, Politics: Trust is at the Heart of Ethical Communication

    By Lisa Cutter, member Colorado House of Representatives, member PRSA Colorado

    When I think about ethics, I think about building trust. Transparent, ethical communications is the cornerstone of trusting relationships. And relationships are the basis of everything that makes our world work — those between businesses and customers, constituents and elected officials, media and the public. As a public relations practitioner turned legislator, I have seen and felt the lack of trust in critical institutions. And, I’m concerned.

    According to a 2019 Gallup poll on honesty and ethics, members of Congress and journalists rank low on the trust index. While trust in journalists has increased by 10% since the last study in 2017, 34% of those surveyed still have a very low level of trust for journalists. Members of Congress fare worse, with 58% of people reporting a very low level of trust for them.

    PR professionals aren’t specifically cited in the Gallup poll, but in a 2015 study commissioned by PRWeek indicated that 70% of the public doesn’t trust those employed in PR and think the industry is about manipulating information rather than advocating honestly.

    The reasons behind this lack of trust are complicated, numerous and debatable, but what matters more is that we must work hard to change this perception. It is incumbent on all PR practitioners to talk about ethics and operate with the highest ethical standards. When we have a seat at the table with our companies and clients, we must be the defender of truth and transparency. Inaccuracies and misrepresentation almost always have a lasting negative impact. People forgive mistakes, but lies and deliberate misinformation are rarely forgotten.

    Members of PRSA, most of whom are familiar with the code of ethics that guides our profession, understand the importance of ethical communications. Among other things, the Code explicitly states that public relations practitioners are to be honest and accurate in all communications and avoid deceptive practices. Adhering to the Code is how we can start reshaping this environment of skepticism.

    As a legislator, I sponsored a bill this year that I hope will help rebuild trust in the media over time. I believe trust in the media has largely been eroded because of the lack of understanding about what constitutes real journalism. My media literacy legislation will provide guidance for instructing kids in K-12 to:

    • Detect and avoid misinformation
    • Recognize quality journalism when they see it
    • Have conversations about what to trust
    • Interpret and understand media messages


    I’ve always believed in the transformative power of information. I trust people to make the right choices for themselves when purchasing a product or service, considering a news story or voting. When armed with good information, I believe things usually work out for the best. But to get “good” information, we must trust the source of that information. Let’s do what we can to earn that trust.

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