NEW YORK—Businesses in America—and around the world—are struggling to communicate “character”: the interaction between brand, reputation and behavior, according to a new study released by Hill+Knowlton Strategies at the Global Public Relations Summit in Miami.

The study examined how consumers make decisions, where they get their information and how they view inconsistency in a company’s communications and actions. The results show that an inability to communicate character impacts a company’s ability to connect with the public in a way that drives positive reputation and financial value.

According to the findings, nine out of 10 Americans believe that companies need to do more to bring their behaviors in better alignment with their publicly stated values. Beyond that, nearly half of Americans think that companies’ behaviors are out of alignment with the values they publicly promote.

H+K Strategies found that consumers view this misalignment as dishonest, and that perceived dishonesty can lead to crisis. On the other hand, 73 percent of Americans are more likely to purchase products or services from companies that are good at what H+K Strategies calls “Communicating Character.”

“We have been studying the impact of ‘character’: the intersection of brand, reputation and behavior on how the public views organizations,” says Andy Weitz, U.S. president and CEO of H+K Strategies. “Our research shows that big consumer decisions, like who to buy from or where to work, are strongly influenced by companies’ character. And 89 percent of consumers trust friends, family and peers most when it comes to information about a company.”

Other findings include:

  • Only one in 10 people trust companies more today than 10 years ago.
  • Nearly nine out of ten people look first to friends and family – not CEOs, not the government and not the news – for trusted input on companies.
  • When asked to grade companies for behaving responsibly, having a positive impact on society and being trustworthy, two thirds of the public gives them an unimpressive C or below.
  • About half of people think companies are trying harder to have a positive impact on society, but only one-third are convinced that companies are actually behaving more responsibly.
  • Sixty-four percent want companies to demonstrate character through volunteerism and philanthropy in the community.
  • Three-fourths of the public says that there is greater access to information about companies than ever before. This new age of transparency means that consumers aren’t just hearing carefully crafted brand messages through advertising and other traditional media. It also means they’re hearing about companies’ reputations and behaviors from consumers and third parties across the world.

“Too frequently, businesses only understand or address the collective impact of character when they have reached a crisis state. They view character as a defensive strategy,” Weitz says. “We found that when companies go on the offense by Communicating Character, they stand out from their competitors. In fact, three out of four people said they were more likely to spend money with companies who demonstrate they have character.”