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Public trust can be defined as a process and outcome of a publicly generated, communicative mechanism within which publicly perceptible individuals, organizations, and other social systems act as ‘trust objects.’ Public trust is generated within the public communication process in which ‘trust subjects’ attribute more or less trust to trust objects (see Bentele 1994; Bentele & Seidenglanz 2008).
On the one hand, the term public trust refers to the attribution of different degrees of trust or distrust. On the other hand, the possibility of observing publicly perceptible agents and organizations is produced and controlled by actively organized communication (journalism, media, public relations). Thus, in that sense, public trust refers to the social mechanisms of public communication by which the attitude of agents’ trust is generated.
Bentele’s (1994) theory of public trust differentiates between trust subjects, trust objects, trust mediators, facts, and events, as well as texts and messages. Usually, trust subjects (trustors) are individuals, while trust objects (trustees) can be individuals, organizations, and even more extensive social systems (e.g., the health system of a society, the political system, etc.). Those agents that intentionally or unintentionally mediate trust to the trust subjects within the public communication process are called ‘trust mediators.’ Journalists and PR professionals, as well as organizations, act as intermediaries of trust. The relationships between PR and journalism itself depend on mutual attributions of trust. The theory distinguishes four types of trust (basic, ‘public personal,’ organizational, and system trust) and various trust factors (e.g., problem-solving competencies, adequacy of communication, communicative consistency, etc.). The latter are responsible for creating higher or lower, empirically measurable levels of trust.
- Bentele, G. (1994). Цffentliches Vertrauen: Normative und soziale Grundlage fьr Public Relations [Public trust: A normative and social foundation for public relations]. In W. Armbrecht & U. Zabel (eds.), Normative Aspekte der Public Relations: Grundlagen und Perspektiven. Eine Einführung [Normative aspects of public relations: Foundations and perspectives. An introduction]. Opladen: Westdeutscher, pp. 131–158.
- Bentele, G. & Seidenglanz, R. (2008). Trust and credibility – prerequisites for communication management. In A. Zerfass, B. van Ruler, & K. Sriramesh (eds.), Public relations research. European and international perspectives and innovations. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag fьr Sozialwissenschaften, pp. 49–62.
- Seiffert, J., Bentele, G., & Mende, L. (2011). An explorative study on discrepancies in communication and action of German companies. Journal of Communication Management, 15(4), 349–367.