ITL #268 - The trust conundrum: reputation in the age of cynicism

8 months, 2 weeks ago


Was the third sector the final institutional bastion to blow its reputation in the UK – and is there anyone left we can depend on? By Jim Donaldson.

Cast your mind back three years to the Syrian refugee appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK.  Harrowing images of children fleeing war and famine arrested the imaginations of everyone.  Praise was rightfully placed on the shoulders of aid workers; our trust placed in their care for the most vulnerable.

Fast forward to 2018 and that same unflinching trust has gone.  The global development sector as a whole faces a crisis so grave it has created an existential threat for its constituents; its largest and arguably most trusted beast – Oxfam – severely wounded. 

In 2001, pollsters MORI pegged trust in charitable and voluntary organisations at a healthy 63%.  In the wake of successful interventions in Syria and Sudan, trust in charities was only just behind the NHS and armed forces in 2017[1].  This year paints a very different picture.  Scandalous media headlines on impropriety within the sector has meant the number of Brits who trust international development organisations hovers ominously around the one third mark (36%[2]). 

The one thing organisations like Oxfam, the Red Cross or Save the Children need to do their work is trust.  And if trust is their currency, many are currently close to bankruptcy. 

International development organisations are not the first to have fallen victim to a collapse in trust.  But they are the latest in a long line of once trusted institutions for which expectation and belief are collapsing.

When trust goes, it is hard to regain.  Consider the same list of Britain’s most trusted institutions identified some 17 years ago by MORI.

The sex abuse scandals that rocked the very foundations of the global Church have seen its congregation precipitously decline.  The incompetence of the Metropolitan Police with Stephen Lawrence’s life and its seeming lack of regard for Mark Duggan’s has meant many in London’s Afro-Caribbean community have disengaged from the very institution that is here to protect us.  

From Hillsborough to the hacking scandal, trust in the media (the fourth estate) is at an historic low bar, paving the road for an era of fake news merchants.  Jimmy Savile did to the BBC what the repugnant behaviour of many coaches have done for the FA and football.  And then there are the politicians, consistently the least trusted of all British institutions, who have fared even worse following the expenses scandal.  Even a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, banks, bankers and insurers continue to be treated with disdain.  

Loss of public confidence

In less than a generation in the UK (and no doubt elsewhere too) institutions and professions that were once considered beyond reproach have lost the public’s confidence.  Greed, sexual impropriety and the abuse of power, it would seem, are the enemies of trust.  With the fall of each great bastion, cynicism grows.  Who would want a career as a UK politician now?

We need to trust our public institutions.  And we need to believe what they say.  If the authenticity of an institution is whether I expect them to do what they say they will, then trust is a fundamental building block for society.

We have seen what a trust breakdown in the news has done for politics in America too.  A 2017 Gallup poll[3] found less than one in three (32%) of Americans trust the media, allowing a President to operate without the same democratic checks and balances of many of his predecessors.

Trust is hard fought and not easily rebuilt.  It isn’t something that can be procured through ad campaigns or co-opting influencers, by articles on page 22 of a national newspaper or printed apology letters.  It’s intuitive and instinctive. 

What next?

Which makes rebuilding trust in public institutions all the more important. So, what next for the third sector and organisations like Oxfam?   

To answer that, let us consider two case studies. The first is the BBC. Trust in ‘Auntie’ was at an eight year high in 2012. Accusations against Jimmy Savile and a host of children’s television stars caused confidence in the Corporation to collapse.  But not by as much as many may think.  By March of last year, trust in the BBC was still higher than it was in 2004, almost recovering to pre-Savile levels.


The second is the NHS. The overwhelming majority of the British public continue to support the NHS, its work and its nurses and doctors.  And this, in spite of countless examples of what could be considered abuse and neglect. The monstrous crimes of Harold Shipman and tragedies at the Mid-Staffordshire Trust dented confidence in our health service.  But trust and support for the NHS in 2017 remains almost as high as it did at the turn of the millennium, seldom dropping below 70%.

To understand this, we need to understand whether the actions of individuals in organisations like the BBC, the NHS and indeed Oxfam can be divorced from the institutions themselves.  I would argue that in some cases they can.

The question we should be asking is not whether you will donate to Oxfam next year, but whether you can imagine Oxfam being around in 10 or 20 years’ time?  Our instinctive belief in the role and importance of an organisation like the NHS is a better determinant of whether we can trust it again. And in this, there is hope for organisations like Oxfam.

Trust can be rebuilt, but only with four truths.

First, we often need to hear less from the top.  Following its Gulf of Mexico spill, oil giant BP put less of its then CEO Tony Hayward on TV and more of its on-the-ground engineers.  Why? Because we trust people we have some relation to more than those we don’t.  How many of us know the Chief Executive of a FTSE 250 company?  And yet many of us know engineers and indeed aid workers.  According to FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap research, CEOs are only marginally more trusted than politicians, who sit at the bottom of the trust totem pole.  At the top are ‘people I know’ – friends and colleagues. If you want to rebuild public trust, we need to see more of ‘people like me’.

An organisation is not its policies or its printed apology letters.  An organisation is its people and is judged by the impact they have on others. If you want to make me trust you, show me the crucial work you’re doing in Sudan and Syria, and the children, the grandfathers and the young women it is materially helping.  This is the second truth.

The third is that this is not really about communications. This is fundamentally about actions. If authenticity is when I believe what you say, because you’re doing it, then do it. Do first, tell me about it second; I need to see how the organisation has changed, and believe that it has.

And, lastly, this is a five-year, not a five-month project. The key to a turnaround is rebuilding from the bottom up – starting with employees. Employee morale and belief is the lifeblood of any organisation. And getting it back takes time. 

With authenticity in action, the third sector can rebuild public trust.  And restoring faith in one of the last trusted pillars of society can be no bad thing.  Ask David Beckham how he was perceived after the 1998 World Cup and compare that to his reputation now.  If Becks can do it, so can others.




author"s portrait

The Author

Jim Donaldson

Jim Donaldson, CEO Fleishman Hillard UK and Middle East.

mail the author
visit the author's website

Forward, Post, Comment | #IpraITL

We are keen for our IPRA Thought Leadership essays to stimulate debate. With that objective in mind, we encourage readers to participate in and facilitate discussion. Please forward essay links to your industry contacts, post them to blogs, websites and social networking sites and above all give us your feedback via forums such as IPRA’s LinkedIn group. A new ITL essay is published on the IPRA website every week. Prospective ITL essay contributors should send a short synopsis to IPRA head of editorial content Rob Gray email


Welcome to IPRA


Follow IPRA: