Can government public communications elicit undue trust? Exploring the interaction between symbols and substantive information in communications

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Effective public communications have been proposed as a remedy for citizens' distrust in government. Recent studies pointed to the emotional effect of symbolic elements, entangled in government public communications (e.g., logos, images, and celebrities). Still, they did not examine the interaction between these symbols and the substantive information in communications about bureaucracies' performance and policies. Exploring this interaction is important for understanding the theoretical mechanisms underlying the effect of symbolic communication on citizens' trust. Also, it is essential to assess symbols' potency to unduly compensate for unfavorable or logically unpersuasive information, and enable public organizations to escape justified public criticism. Building on the social psychology Elaboration Likelihood Model, I theorize that symbols may increase citizens' trust by conducing citizens to pay less attention to logically unpersuasive information, and thus offsetting its negative effect. I test this indirect mechanism via a large survey experiment, focusing on the Israeli Environment Protection Ministry. The experimental results support the research hypotheses and suggest that the effect of symbolic elements is stronger when communications include logically unpersuasive information. I discuss the implications of these findings for democratic responsiveness and accountability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-95
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I thank, first and foremost, my doctoral advisor, Sharon Gilad. I also thank Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, Lilach Nir, Omer Yair, Sebastian Jilke, Sjors Overman, Yaacov Schul, Noam Brenner, Alon Zoizner, Yarden Niv, and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions and comments. An early version of this article was presented at the 2018 Transatlantic Dialogue in Bucharest, and I thank the participants of this workshop. I am grateful to the Azrieli Foundation for the award of an Azrieli Fellowship. Address correspondence to the author at s.alon.

Publisher Copyright:
©The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Marketing


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