Linking Trust and Transparency

In 2006, an Institute for Public Relations survey identifying priority research topics put trust right at the top of the list. And what produces trust?

The professional literature of our field suggests that transparency may be a key driver. Richard Edelman writes in the 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer that “continuous, transparent – and even passionate – communications is central to success” in today’s environment. The transparency/trust linkage seems to be everywhere – except in actual research.

Up steps Dr. Brad Rawlins of Brigham Young University, seeking to either prove or disprove the connection. He presented his research as a work in progress at the International Public Relations Research Conference, sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations, March 2007 in Miami.

Delving into academic literature on trust and transparency, Rawlins derived definitions of both terms, giving rise to a survey instrument. For trust, he adopted questions that measured willingness to trust an organization based on three key components: integrity (is the organization fair and just?); goodwill (does the organization care about me?); and competence (does the organization have the ability to do what it says it will?).

Rawlins’ questions to measure perceptions of organizational transparency stood on four components: information provided (is it truthful, substantial and reliable?); stakeholder participation (in identifying what sort of information they need and want); accountability (for what the organization does and says, including mistakes); and secretiveness (a “reverse item” measuring the opposite of openness and expected to show a negative correlation to transparency).

To test his methodology, Rawlins recruited the help of a large regional healthcare organization with 25,000 employees at 150 sites. Invitations went to 1,200 employees to participate in a web-based survey. More than 30% responded. The demographics of these respondents approximated the mix of the entire employee body.

Using simple correlations and regression analysis, Rawlins found that all three components of trust were valid predictors of employees willingness to trust the organization (with integrity and goodwill showing correlations above .80 on a scale where 1.0 represents perfect correlation). Similarly, the four components of transparency could be validated as strongly related to the overall concept, with information, participation and accountability being the strongest factors.

But to the main question of Rawlins’ research: Is there a provable link between transparency and trust?

In the minds of these healthcare employees, the answer is clearly yes. The survey results showed a correlation of .75. A number that high provides strong evidence that a transparent organization is trusted, and vice versa.

“From this study, one could conclude that as organizations become more transparent, they will also become more trusted,” says Rawlins. While the study involved only employees, and other stakeholders such as consumers and investors might yield different results, he believes that the statistical evidence is strong enough to suggest that the relationship will be found with other groups as well, even if the predictive power of the components varies.

For more information, or if your organization would like to participate in further research on trust and transparency with employees and other stakeholders, Dr. Rawlins may be contacted at .

Frank Ovaitt
President and CEO
Institute for Public Relations

Posted in [Blog] and tagged .

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Publicizing Transparency in an Untransparent World | Flames On Fifth Avenue

  2. Mark, the issue here is that what we have known in our guts, through our experience and using what one might call common sense is being called to account by business leaders.  We seem too often to say “Trust me! I know PR.” The CEO says, “oh yeah? Prove it.” We usually have said to ourselves—“we can’t.”

    The IPR’s research is looking for factual basis for our long-held assertions.  Brad’s work, both in trust and in stakeholder audience segmentation, strongly suggests that there are relationships among these factors that bear close examination. Research breeds research, and this work, at least, is thought provoking.  It also just plain feels right, in my gut.

  3. As Mark Forstneger has indicated, all research has limitations, and those limitations are clearly indicated in Frank’s overview of my research.  It doesn’t purport to be respresentative of the general public, but the research conducted with employees does indicate that the two constructs (trust and transparency) as measured by one instrument seem to have a strong association with each other.  This does not mean that one causes the other, but as an organization appears to be more transparent to its employees, it is also more likely to be trusted.  I’d love to test this with more organizations and with different stakeholders to provide a more robust conclusion about the relationship between these two concepts.  Mark, are you interested in participating?

  4. This is an interesting study. Gregory, Libski and Clark identified that ‘Internet Transparency’ was one of the fundamental issues faced by PR for the CIPR/PRCA Internet Commission (the others being Internet: Porosity, Agency, Richness and Reach).

    Since then we have seen examples of movement to towards a form of controlled radical transparency. Examples are Microsoft’s Channel 9 and IBM’s social media policies. It could be argued that Channel 9 and IBM’s work has had effect but transparency is much more complex as a management practice than most might believe.

    In online Public Relations increased transparency can increase digital footprint and numbers of interactions. This has two effects. First is to increase the asset base of the company because of the online presence and second is to add relationships and relationships value (at a cost to P&L;).

    There is a third issue which is cultural shift for both the dominant coalition and employees.  Transparency is a very hard notion for both – especially when identifying how far it can/should go.

  5. While it doesn’t SEEM far-fetched that transparency produces trust, a survey of 400 people, in one region, in one industry, is supposed to be representative of… what? The general public? Please…

  6. Catching up on email from Korea.  Wanted to say your column is very readable and clear recap of complicated stuff!

  7. Once again Brad has done significant research. Trust is a area we’ve all talked about for years. Now we have data to back up our PR claims to management that telling the truth and being a “see-through” company is THE best way to build corporate trust and reputation.Thanks Brad. We needed that!…..Jack Felton

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