So you want to be a trusted advisor?

In the Godfather films, mafia boss Michael Corleone’s trusted, right-hand man, or consigliere, is Tom Hagen. Hagen dies when a rival locks him in the boot of his car and pushes it into a Florida swamp. Corleone later receives a dead baby alligator with Tom Hagen’s wallet in its mouth, a potent symbol of his demise.

Hagen reached this position of considerable power because his ideas, advice and opinions were valued by Corleone. He was considered the leader’s go-to person; always dependable, trustworthy – a safe pair of hands. If this sounds like you, then congratulations on becoming a trusted advisor.

Reaching this position is a career high point, although not everyone will make it. For one thing, it’s harder in public relations (PR) than in many other sectors.

Take engineering or teaching. Both rank highly in Ipso-Mori’s Veracity Index, an annual study of trust in the professions running continuously since 1983. Marketing and PR are not among the 29 professional groups studied, which is probably just as well when you consider the positions of their close relatives.

Journalists sit way down at number 26 – lower than estate agents (see chart). They can at least console themselves: both are more trusted than politicians. Whereas advertising professionals are rock bottom in the trustworthiness stakes.

Which professions are most trusted by the general public?

When lying and bullshitting are openly acknowledged as being part of marketing by one of its most-influential thinkers*, it’s not hard to imagine PR giving advertising a run for its money. Which may leave PR practitioners aiming for trusted advisor status with a bit of a mountain to climb. So what to do?

First of all, some perspective. The seminal business book on this subject is ‘The Trusted Advisor’. Although more than 20 years old, it’s still a great source of intelligent inspiration and advice. Two of its three co-authors are ex-management consultants.

If that occupation was also on the Veracity Index, how lowly would it rank, given the steady flow of spectacularly negative stories? Yet management consultants regularly attain trusted advisor status in the boardrooms of public and private organisations. They manage this despite their notorious strategies (land-and-expand, dependency-creation) while also charging eye-watering fees.

Then there was MP Peter Kyle’s withering put-down of KPMG consultant Michelle Hinchcliffe (auditor of Carillion, pre-collapse): “I wouldn’t trust you to audit the contents of my fridge.” On this evidence alone, surely all is not lost for aspiring PR professionals?

How, then, do you get there? The first thing to know is that trust is bestowed. To earn it usually takes time: some people are less trusting, especially when it comes to accepting career changing business advice. You certainly need to have a good depth and breadth of experience. Gravitas, greying hair, well-cut business attire: all probably help but are not essential.

On the other hand, professional qualifications almost certainly are. Although not mandatory to practice PR, a CEO’s entourage includes lawyers, accountants and other professionals, each highly-qualified after years of study. Acceptance in these circles is much harder without qualifications.

If you’re an early or mid-career PR professional, you may need to work on self-knowledge. The challenge here is that there’s too much information available to know what’s useful and what isn’t. And what’s useful to me might not be to you.

Nevertheless, one resource I think worthy of review is The School of Life’s Self Knowledge portal. The School’s co-founder is well-known philosopher Alain de Botton. Among its many articles, videos and other resources is a self-knowledge questionnaire and quiz.

To help you understand how trustworthy you are, take the Trust Quotient Assessment. This tool is based on the methodology and teachings of the authors behind the book mentioned earlier.

Trusted advisor status puts you among the elite in PR. Always remember though, competition for these roles is tough and can sometimes be ruthless. Stay vigilant. ‘Sleeping with the alligators’, like Hagen, is not how you want to end up.

*Professor Mark Ritson speaking on the Everyone Hates Marketing podcast

Note: This article was first published in Influence magazine, the official journal of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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