Corporate debacles, such as the recent improper foreclosures and seizures of homes by banks, the BP oil spill and the many Toyota recalls, make it difficult for consumers to have confidence in corporations and even entire industries.
“Corporate trust is really a complex construct that involves multiple dimensions,” says Barbara Miller, an assistant professor of communications at Elon. “Audiences conceptualize it differently depending on what the business or corporation is actually trying to communicate. Two dimensions of corporate trust include trustworthiness and expertise.”
In her research, Miller extensively explores the relationships between corporations and the public. Her primary focus is how audiences perceive marketplace advocacy messages, a form of advertising corporations use to gain support for a product, business or industry sector by appealing to commonly-held values such as national energy security, ingenuity and determinism, while steering away from industry-related topics that may involve risks. In these campaigns, she says, corporations may talk about environmental improvements that the industry has made or is working on, such as Chevron’s “Human Energy” campaign, an effort to portray itself as an environmentally responsible corporation. More often, however, these campaigns focus on economic values, such as the American Petroleum Institute, which promotes oil and natural gases vital to American energy security through its “Energy Tomorrow” campaign; or the American Coalition for Clean Electricity’s “America’s Power” campaign, which promotes coal as a critical energy source.
Miller’s research shows that if businesses and industries can show positive motives, transparency in their activities and adherence to government regulations for the industry, they are more likely to gain the public’s trust and approval for their activities, which can lead to political action on their behalf. For instance, people who respond positively to the “Plastics Make it Possible” campaign by the American Chemistry Council, may oppose regulation banning the use of plastic bags in grocery stores.
“If audiences can identify with the themes in these advocacy ads, they may be less skeptical of the message itself or less critical about what the industry is doing,” she says.“They may be less inclined to question what it is that the business or industry is actually doing, and just think (it) is doing good for society.”
Miller is looking at how marketplace advocacy influences environmental attitudes, how audiences identify with the values presented in ads and how that impacts their perspective about a business’ or organization’s activities and their own overall environmental attitudes. Her research suggests consumers who are predisposed to distrust a business or industry and those with higher levels of environmental concerns are less susceptible to these messages. But for those who may be uninformed about the relevant issues, a campaign goal is often to discourage them from supporting or initiating government regulation of corporate activities.
“Part of their efforts to communicate with the general public is simply to generate that sense of good will that may in fact lead to inaction or a lack of questioning, a lack of interest, a lack of investigation into what the business or industry is engaging in,” Miller says. “Either outcome, whether it is political action on behalf of the industry or inaction in opposition to industry activities, is really beneficial for the business or industry engaging in the marketplace advocacy.”