A secret weapon to build trust: connectors5 years, 10 months ago
Central and Eastern Europe provides inspiring examples of how natural "connectors" in big corporations, governments and NGOs can look beyond narrow interests to build trust. By Eszter Szabo.
In the developed world, a culture of quick fixes, off-the-cuff promises and one-stop-shops for fast business prevails. Does this inspire trust in policies, markets and leaders? I think not. But there is another way, and one can look to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to find it.
In CEE, my profession – strategic communications and public affairs – has a history of barely 25 years. Before that, the function didn’t exist. And why would it have? A role that professionally connects organizations with its shareholders is only needed in democracies and free market economies. However, while we in this region might need to accumulate experience, what we do have is creativity.
You need creativity living far from global power centers, where resources are always scarce and therefore to have an impact one must utilize the only asset you have in abundance, finding new ways to create new links to make the unthinkable happen. Back to where we started, we find the million-dollar question: "How do we build trust?" Or in many cases, how to re-build it?
An extensive question for sure, but one that has a surprisingly simple answer: we need visionary and long-term thinking executives and government members who are backed by strategic communicators. Getting there is a long process, but one worth the effort. Your future as a leader, and your organization’s future depend on it.
Allow me to showcase three trust-building best practices developed in CEE – initiatives in which I was involved. They are based on working experience with ministers, including PMs, AmChams, and European and global CEOs. As a communications leader in the public and international business sectors over the last quarter of a century, my theory is that natural connectors in big corporations, governments and NGOs, can play a special role that goes beyond the direct interest of the above parties. Here, for executives, is my checklist for trust building.
1. Credibility: "Leave your guns and tape recorders in the cloakroom"
An organization has to have a forum where doubters can touch reality. Otherwise, you’ll be lulling yourself into the false hope that people will believe what you say, or support what your organization does.
Between the two World Wars, the Budapest (Hungary) Police Chief received people in a nearby café, once a week, for those who wanted to discuss matters with him. A criminal reporter at the Hungarian Police Headquarters told me this story in the early days of June 1990, when I spent my first week as the newly appointed Press Chief for the Ministry of the Interior.
The Ministry and the Police faced serious legitimacy problems at that time, as we had just recently held the first free elections and before them the police were viewed as the arm of the communist system. There was a need to prove, then formulate and underpin, the benefits the organization could bring to society in our rapidly evolving democratic system. The first part was my job, and the second part belonged to my boss, the Minister. So, before the summer holiday season, we organized the first ‘press café’ of the Ministry of the Interior (it had 70,000 employees ranging from national police through municipalities to a national border guard force). To our surprise more than 150 journalists turned up.
"Leave your guns and tape recorders in the cloakroom." This was printed on the invitation cards as a statement to define the atmosphere and rules of the evening. The curtains of the dreaded socialist era Ministry of the Interior had opened, unexpectedly for most, for the first time. Leaders, including the Minister, were accessible for two hours to those gathered.
One of the journalists commented, "If you’re allowed to talk to them, you won’t necessarily have to write bad things about them from now on." These informal, thematic evenings continued regularly for five years, and they fundamentally changed both the external perception, and the internal operation, of the Ministry.
2. Constructiveness: "Who can train talent to create the regional development the European Union talks so much about?"
An organization’s philanthropic initiatives can accelerate the development of regions. Without this, people question the benefits companies bring to society.
In 2001, an American MD from a leading US-based nonprofit organization told me that the global GE Foundation had extended its philanthropic university scholarship program to Hungary. By then I was working in Hungary in corporate communications. Up until that moment GE had lacked the funds required to launch an educational corporate citizenship initiative that would have significant impact.
The European HR manager and I were as happy as clams at hearing this news. We figured that we too could add something special to the ready-made program, something that would be unique to this region: access to a global way of thinking and the ability to build networks, both of which you could never learn from parents who were brought up in the old system.
It is a life-changing experience for the GE Foundation Scholar-Leaders, one that truly alters their attitude and plants in them a feeling of urgency. In 13 years, a total of 514 Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Romanian students have benefited from this regional scholarship program. They meet and bond during a summer seminar organised by the Institute of International Education.
Many of them have already launched their own businesses, sometimes collaborating with others from the program for a competitive edge, where their new for-profit companies or non-profits function in multiple markets, addressing global needs. You can read some of these inspiring, life-altering stories at geforcee.geblogs.com.
3. Persuasiveness: "Online and Offline"
Does the executive of an organization have a professional digital footprint?
In 1996, my first year at the company, it took two days for the National Executive’s assistant to organize a countrywide leadership meeting. Today it takes a mere two minutes. Recently, together with six AmChams, we ran two exclusive multi-stakeholder debates on innovation – one in Poland and one in Romania. GE has been contributing to repositioning CEE as an emerging innovation hub. GE’s global CEO participated at the two sessions.
I was surprised to see how simple and fast the organizing process has become. We downloaded bios from LinkedIn and used Twitter to obtain information about the places individuals visited and the thoughts they shared. Today we also watch YouTube videos to see their interactions, and we search Google to find more information on their activities – information that is not included in the company´s database.
Executives today do not realize the importance of ‘digital’ comments and statements about their profession and experience. Those without a digital footprint will inevitably be seen as either "old school" or somebody who has "something to hide."
It is a communicator’s job to prepare leaders for this challenge, but it is not the communicator’s job to create and manage a leader’s personal digital presence. Some Hungarian/regional business leaders are yet to become digitally savvy – they need gentle support and guidance to "discover" this new era.
Businesses pressed by the need to enhance efficiency, and the public sector operating under the pressure to maintain legitimacy, are increasingly asking for more colorful requirements from communications. "Do less with more," they say. "Give it a positive communications’ spin." "Tear it apart!"
There is no end to impossible wishes, it seems.
But strategic communications leaders must not sacrifice credibility, constructiveness and persuasiveness, even when under heavy pressure. Why? Because it can take years of persistent work to build public awareness and trust in an organization, or the brand of an executive, but it takes just seconds for it to be destroyed.
The developed world is facing a crisis. Polls show that people have lost trust in institutions. In communications, we should treat this as an opportunity. We should view it with the hope that we can work as an inventive force to connect people and organizations, with sectors adding a regional dimension for scale in a positive way.
Just try it! In 25 years, I’ve experienced amazing achievements here in Central and Eastern Europe.
Eszter Szabo leads GE’s strategic communications and public affairs in CEE, including 21 countries from Lithuania down to Cyprus. She drives discussion on how GE and the region can grow together as partners. She is responsible for stakeholder engagement including academia, NGO sector, customer and government and for promoting GE’s brand and reputation. Eszter also oversees the company’s corporate citizenship investments in the region where GE employs 27,000 people.
Chief editor of European Silver Sabre awarded geforcee.geblogs.com blog, she has 24 years of senior management experience in corporate communications and public affairs within both the public and private sectors. Prior to joining GE she served as the Head of the Communications and PR Department of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior for 5 years, while she was also advisor for the PM in 1994.
Eszter earned two MAs in economics and communication (Karl Marx University of Economics 1988, College of Foreign Trade 1994). In 1995 she was a senior intern at Susan Davis International as a Pew Economic Freedom Fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Since 2000 she has been engaged in GE’s equal opportunity initiative, the GE Women’s Network, and currently she is the co-chair of the organization in the East-Central Region with 1800 members.
In 2010 Eszter was recognized by the Budapest Business School as an honorary professor. In 2011 she received the Institute of International Education (IIE) European Award of Excellence, the first ever European award to recognize outstanding achievement in international education. In 2012 as recognition of her major contribution to the organization of the Ronald Reagan Centennial celebrations in CEE and her outstanding efforts to promote training and education she received the Knight´s Cross Medal of the Hungarian Order of Merit
Note: A Hungarian version of this essay was published in Manager Magazin in July 2015.
Eszter Szabo leads GE’s strategic communications and public affairs in CEE, including 21 countries from Lithuania down to Cyprus. She drives discussion on how GE and the region can grow together as partners.mail the author
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