Rebuilding Trust in Business12 years ago
The global financial meltdown has presented professional communicators with a daunting challenge, writes Chris Atkins.
A crisis of trust exists among the American people. And no wonder. The past few years have taken a dreadful toll on people who never had any reason to believe they were a part of a global financial meltdown. Near-double-digit unemployment, record numbers of home foreclosures and extraordinary government bailouts have done little to bolster the average citizen’s opinion of business or government. And the humongous bonus payments on Wall Street projected for 2011 can only lead a person to ask, "Have we learned anything from The Great Recession?"
We have. Or perhaps, we have relearned something we have always known: Trust takes years to build and seconds to destroy.
No one is immune. Even companies far removed from the financial shenanigans that hobbled the economy must reckon with a cynical public that is unlikely to believe what a firm says about itself. This situation is made more difficult by the presence of so many other voices (thanks to social media) that often have much greater credibility about the company than the company itself.
The challenge that lies before professional communicators is daunting: Find a way to convince our most important audiences that we deserve their trust. Of course, as is so often the case, it is hardly just a communications issue.
Forging a bond
The least effective way to engender trust, of course, is to declare oneself to be trustworthy. Trust is built over time, based on what organizations do, not say. The bond of trust is forged through a variety of interactions between a company and its stakeholders. One definition of trust looks like this:
Trust = Competence + Commitment
If people believe you are competent to accomplish a task and are committed to achieving it, they will trust you with that task. If you repeatedly demonstrate competence and commitment, an ever-deeper bond can be built.
Organizations -- companies and governments alike -- must focus not on trust per se but on competence and commitment. What might that look like? Well, we could start with Fortune magazine’s America’s Most Admired Companies study. The eight key attributes that contribute to the Overall Reputation assessment are: management quality; product quality; wise use of corporate assets; value as a long-term investment; ability to attract, develop and keep talented people; financial soundness; responsibility to the community and/or environment, and innovativeness.
If we examine each of these attributes through the ‘Competence + Commitment’ lens, we can begin to identify the expectations stakeholders have of a company and how to meet them. For example, a company that demonstrates both competence and commitment to product quality can point to a state-of-the-art quality assurance process and the wherewithal to hold itself accountable for quality metrics. A company that demonstrates competence and commitment to ‘Innovativeness’ hires the best talent and invests in research and development.
And, a company that demonstrates competence and commitment to ‘Management Quality’ acknowledges when its performance lags expectations and defines and implements a plan for improvement.
Then, and only then, does the communicator’s work begin. Without the evidence upon which to build trust, we are left with hollow platitudes and corporate-speak, effortlessly (and uselessly) carpet-bombed via PR Newswire, Facebook and Twitter. What we need is real and tangible evidence that our organizations are competent and committed.
The best strategies
Historically, companies focused on these attributes and demonstrating competence and commitment have fared better over time than companies that have not. Running a business with the interests of all stakeholders in mind and embracing an appropriate degree of transparency are the best strategies a company can adopt.
Now would also be a good time to look at a company’s Influencer strategy. A company can’t declare with any credibility that it behaves in a trustworthy manner, but a third party can. Who are the people that the media turn to for opinions about a given company? Is a process in place to reach out to these influencers and create evangelists of them? Again, it takes time to build these relationships - which are built, after all, on trust. Being able to leverage a company’s relationships with these opinion leaders when hard times come can be a major advantage.
Yes, trust has been strained, perhaps broken. But, for the most part, we are a forgiving lot. Most of the companies that have been embroiled at one point or another in scandal or crisis have survived — and even thrived in the fullness of time. There is no reason to think that won’t be the case this time around, but there is plenty of hard work ahead.
Chris Atkins, Vice President, Communications, Standard & Poor’s joined the financial market intelligence company in June 2006 after 26 years in PR on the agency side. Before joining S&P, he was Managing Director of the global corporate practices at Ogilvy PR, Ketchum, and Burson-Marsteller. Chris is a member of the Arthur W. Page Society, and a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations.mail the author
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