Credibility in communication

While browsing one of my old (2006) communication textbooks, I stumbled across the chapter on credibility in communication. The chapter started by stating that an audience is not likely to listen to, or retain information from someone who has not earned the right to talk about that subject.

Sadly, that seems to rarely be the case anymore.

It seems that we are willing to listen to, and give credibility to, just about anyone. It seems even more likely when the communication is shared through an avenue such as social media, television, or a blog. Anything other than face to face. Why are we ever willing to give our attention to those who haven’t established credibility and who likely would not be able to establish credibility on some of the topics they speak about?

Credibility is important and should be established based on who the person is, the subject of discussion, the situation and the audience. Credibility should be earned and, once legitimately earned, will create trust between the communicator and the audience. It seems, however, that the step of establishing credibility is often skipped.

Consider my experience (hey, I am who I know best). Why am I credible to write or speak about the topics I do? I have degrees in communication and taught communication classes for many years, therefore I have some credibility to talk about communication concepts. I’ve been in a leadership position for over a decade, a position that included many errors and learning experiences. Therefore, I should have some level of credibility on leadership.

I shared in a previous column about my struggle with an eating disorder and depression. That gives me a level of credibility to talk about those topics. If I started talking about what it is like to conduct an appendectomy, sit in the back of a police car, or spend a million bucks on a new boat, you should absolutely question my credibility and probably not listen to me for anything other than comedic relief. Why then, do we give people credibility that they don’t deserve? We give it to the media, to actors, to athletes, to people who we perceive to have money or power, and to others who simply don’t deserve it in the way we offer it. We may also give credibility to our acquaintances who may post statements on Facebook or mention gossip in passing. If we don’t expect people to prove their credibility then we are setting ourselves up for exactly what we are getting. A divided country with lots of skewed reality and closed-mindedness from people who stand by what they heard even with no evidence that what they heard or the person they heard it from was the least bit credible.

What credibility does a politician hold to be able to make decisions on such a wide array of topics? What credibility does an NFL player come with to be able use the National Anthem as an opportunity to make a statement about social justice? Or unity? Or disrespecting our county? Or whatever their statement is today? What credibility do the people on your Facebook feed bring to the table to be able to post about the topics they share their opinions on? Of course, these people have every right to share individual opinions, but without establishing credibility, why would we believe them? Why should we get behind them without knowing that they know what they are talking about? Does money give someone credibility? Fame? Power? The vote of the people? Having an opinion? Not for me it doesn’t. Credibility comes experience, practice, expertise, continuous exploration and building of knowledge. Not fame, money, power, or opinion.

We need to be very careful when we give credibility to a communicator. Any communicator. We should ask more questions of ourselves and of the one communicating before we believe the message. Everyone is credible in something but no one is credible in everything. Until we can get to a place where real credibility matters, we will continue to be divided and led blindly by people who may not be the best ones to lead our country, our communities, and our beliefs.

Can we get back to a place where we listen to, and retain information that comes from someone who has earned the right to talk about a subject?

Jackie Krawczak is president/CEO of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Thursdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.