Breaking bad news without breaking trust: The effects of a press release and newspaper coverage on perceived trustworthiness

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Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen
Femke de Vries
Wilte Zijlstra


Public trust, News media, Regulation, Strategic communication, Survey experiment


Can a government agency mitigate the negative effect of "bad new" on public trust? To answer this question, we carried out a baseline survey to measure public trust five days before a major press release involving bad news about an error committed by an independent regulatory agency in the Netherlands. Two days after the agency's press release, we carried out a survey experiment to test the effects on public trust of the press release itself as well as related newspaper articles. Results show that the press release had no negative effect on trustworthiness, which may be because the press release "steals thunder" (i.e. breaks the bad news before the news media discovered it) and focuses on a "rebuilding strategy" (i.e. offering apologies and focusing on future improvements). In contrast, the news articles mainly focused on what went wrong, which affected the competence dimension of trust but not the other dimensions (benevolence and integrity). We conclude that strategic communication by an agency can break negative news to people without necessarily breaking trust in that agency. And although effects of negative news coverage on trustworthiness were observed, the magnitude of these effects should not be overstated.

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