Public Relations is good at quite a few things that matter in organizations, and in society.

Perhaps PR’s strongest contribution is its ability to add breadth, depth and nuance to contextual analyses, and to find solutions through good relationship management, i.e. to understand a problem in its full complexity and to engage others to help solve it.

Let me – with neither false modesty nor any claim on superior insights – apply those traits to a dilemma facing business today.

As the world has become flatter, to use Thomas L. Friedman’s great short-hand for a more interconnected, more empowered and certainly more interdependent planet, its citizens are increasingly less trusting of those in positions of either economic or political power.

Research, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer, records a steady erosion of trust in leaders. Eroding trust weakens the authority that leaders need to engage groups within their reach and steer towards shared goals.

This adds structural weaknesses at a time when we face economic and social problems that can only be solved together by businesses, governments, consumers and citizen groups across borders and cultures.

Moreover, individual companies and whole sectors today feel totally misunderstood, at the same time as consumers feel disenfranchised and “sold to” rather than listened to.

There is no immediate fix, and certainly no quick one.

But what companies need to internalize is that it is wiser to treat stakeholders as citizens and not just as economic players, either enablers or dis-enablers. As consumers, we want to be treated as joint decision-makers as well as buyers or producers of goods and services.

The situation – irritated and increasingly strident consumers on the one hand; alienated and “misunderstood” businesses on the other, and weakening trust the one thing they have in common – is one I describe as the empowerment-expectations dilemma.

How did we get here? And is there a way out?

We got here through decades of aloof corporate behavior and substandard communication.

There has been buyers’ skepticism in the market as long as there have been markets.

But expectations have been managed in the last century as never before, with false promises created that can’t be kept. Ever since corporations began systematically to use advertising, PR and marketing to add an image layer of strong user enjoyment around their products, the corporate world’s underlying message to consumer-citizens has been this:

“Don’t you worry about a thing, dear consumer. Our product takes care of your needs. Just enjoy it. Don’t worry about where it comes from, how it is made, who makes it under what conditions, etc. Just enjoy your better quality of life. We have everything under control. We are the experts”.

And then came a slow, steadily growing backlash. Environmental awareness, health awareness, supply chain awareness, sustainable living awareness, energy use awareness, natural resource awareness, climate change awareness – “Don’t worry? How?”

The corporate stance, meanwhile, is largely unchanged, if more hollow, less defensible, and either more strident or more diffused. And, steadily year after year, trust eroded.

What happened? Generations of company leaders and their PR folk missed a chance to put the greater good provided by their wares into societal context. So now no one “understands” energy or healthcare or environmental impacts.

Companies now rightly feel unloved and misunderstood. They face the daunting challenge of having to re-educate and inform stakeholders while under constant fire from them, rather than in the relative calm of decades past.

On the other horn of this dilemma sits a more vocal, more empowered but largely uniformed and increasingly self-absorbed consumer-citizen.

They want to be heard. But they also missed their chance to develop a better understanding of the wider context of the goods and services they enjoy, and an insight into the habits and expectations that these goods and services create.

So, consumer-citizens, although dissatisfied and longing to be included and consulted, are as likely to simply “like” or “dislike” as to delve into complex policy, technology and behavior choices.

That’s the empowerment-engagement dilemma.

To get to a better place, companies need to come off their high horses. If your stance over generations has been “don’t worry, trust us, we’ve got this under control” you need to begin a real dialogue with your restive, ill-informed, disengaged and less trusting stakeholders.

No magic wand, I am afraid. But genuine public engagement on the basis of a sound, inclusive and humble stakeholder approach – “let us solve problems together” – would make for a really good start.

That might also not only help build better relationships with consumer citizens, but get them actively involved.

Something must happen. Otherwise, eroding trust will in time paralyze us. And create the mother of all dilemmas.