Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Posts Tagged ‘trust’

Trust: the tangible unknown

Posted by Chris Clarke on June 24, 2009

Trust me...?

Trust me...?

Trust and integrity have come to the forefront of debate in the last few weeks.  What is common to the MP expenses scandal, the Iranian presidential election and the elections to the European Parliament is that trust, or the lack thereof, is responsible for the difficulties.

It is clear that for political systems and democracy to function, trust needs to be present.  The difficulty with this is that trust is inherently intangible, something emotional and something that cannot easily be measured.

The oil that powers the engine
It is trust that allows governments to govern; politicians to lead; and businesses the right to function in the market.

And whilst there has been a lot of focus on the new regulatory frameworks needed to curtail banking excesses, new rules for MPs expense claims and codes of conduct for those in public office, one truth remains – abiding by the rules is just not enough.  Citizens, consumers, customers expect more and demand more.

Last week, I was talking to a chief executive who said that the real test of leadership is whether people in your organisation do what they should be doing when nobody is watching.  This relies on trust and belief.  It relies on trust between the CEO and his/her team and on a shared belief that the strategy is right and worth pursuing.

The futility of sticking to the rules
On the other hand, it is clear that many MPs require a more public school disciplinarian regime if they are to stick to the rules.  Ironic considering that it is the law-makers themselves that expect and demand citizens to abide by laws without constant supervision.

From the current political malaise, there are lessons for organisations of all types and all sizes.

Good business isn’t just about abiding by the rules whether that is in sustainability, employee relations or financial probity – it is much more than that.  It is about doing business in a way that is authentic.  In a way that is congruent.  In a way which ‘interprets’ public and market sentiment as much as it ‘sticks’ to the rules that determine what it must do.

Building an authentic reputation
The temptation to turn to communications and reputation management programmes mustn’t be driven by the need to don a sticking plaster.  Instead, it should be driven by a desire to build a reputation that is authentic and reflects what an organisation stands for.

By building an authentic reputation many benefits flow: more goodwill amongst your customers, greater brand loyalty from consumers, more engaged and motivated employees, a more respected voice with policy-makers and regulators, and a brand that will stand the test of time and growing media scrutiny.

The truth is that, unless organisations do this, they will be found out.  And if that happens, there is little point in claiming you ‘stuck’ to the rules.

As, in today’s febrile media environment, rules don’t count for much.

Posted in hothouse, PR | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Restoring corporate trust – can communicators really make it happen?

Posted by majazupan on April 2, 2009

Caught between jaded consumers and sweeping budget cuts, should communicators roll up their sleeves or ask for a sabbatical?

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The G20 London Summit brought together national leaders from around the world, as they searched for ways to restore the global economy. And, while the desired outcomes are economic in nature – stabilisation of financial markets, regeneration of the housing market, creation of jobs, sustainable growth – the public outrage, market volatility and finger pointing of the past six months have made it clear that no solution to arresting the economic fall could stand a chance without one key ingredient – restoring trust.

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“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” These were the words of Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the very beacon of the free market philosophy for decades leading up to the crash last autumn.

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But, the breech of trust did not happen over night. The fact is that confidence – in both institutions and individuals – has been deteriorating for a long time now. Still reasonably fresh in our minds is the Enron scandal from 2001, which prompted the US government to introduce the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, setting strict guidelines for public company accounting practices.

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If anything, the market crash was but a last blow to the school of thought that considers the creation of shareholder value the key responsibility of any corporation. It has become apparent that accountability to shareholders does not act as a sufficient check on the level of risk tolerance within global financial institutions.

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Financial resilience, it turns out, can not be guaranteed without the integrity of corporate governance and concern for the interests of the wider community. Relationships based purely on a financial contract are inherently self-centered, so corporate accountability must go beyond the balance sheet to include an investment in human relationships in order to create trust and a sense of community between the organisation and its stakeholders.

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Consumer psychology in recession: trust no one

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A lot has been written about the extraordinary loss of consumer trust in businesses – ranging from pure rage toward the financial sector to apathy for industries such as retail and leisure, as consumers tightened their purse strings and strengthened their distrust of corporate marketing.

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The public focus has now shifted to policy makers, who have struggled to find quick solutions to an avalanche of market failures due to both corporate and individual misconduct, as well as decision-making based on insufficient information and flawed assumptions. And, while governments are now expected to establish a system of checks and balances to ensure ethical corporate governance, public opinion ranks politicians as even less trustworthy than businesses.

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According to the annual 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government did not rise to offset disillusionment with the business sector – enterprise is still more trusted than government in 13 of the 20 markets surveyed. The media closely follows the government trajectory, with less than half (47 percent) of overall respondents worldwide saying they trust the media to do the right thing. This figure drops precipitously in the UK, with mere 28 percent of respondents placing trust in media.

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What’s a communicator to do?

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Faced with such strong distrust in their corporate spokesperson, their political guardians and the media channels – should corporate communicators throw their hands up in the air and give up trying?

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The short answer is – absolutely not. Withdrawal at a time of crisis not only feeds the public suspicion by cloaking the organisation in a veil of opacity, but it also allows detractors and the competition to take the reins and tell your corporate story from their point of view.

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Trying to get yourself heard and noted while bearing in mind heightened sensitivities may seem like navigating a landmine, particularly with very few certainties to anchor your key points to in this volatile economic context. However, it is key to remember that consumer behaviour is only partially rational. Those organisations consumers come to see as ‘their brands’ appeal to their emotions, desires and the need for identification and comfort – the dimensions that, albeit highly personal and complex, are rooted in a simple human need to relate and belong.

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So no, there is no rulebook for regaining consumer trust. Rather, communicators should deploy their innate ability to listen and act intuitively to find a ground where both their organisation and its stakeholders can stand comfortably.

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House Sweeper in Chief

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Before engaging with the wider public, communicators have a big role to play in making sure their organisation’s house is in order.glass

Problems within organisations all too often arise when the information available is insufficient, misinterpreted or withheld from those whose conduct or decision-making depends on it. Having access to various areas of their organisation, and on a perpetual mission to gather information to base their external communications on, communicators are in a unique position to be the first to notice something being wrong with either the information itself or its interpretation by various internal stakeholders.

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Communicators should use their listening skills to detect any such breakdowns in communication, which, if undetected, may present reputational risks to the organisation. Put in political parlance, communicators should have in place an ‘early warning’ mechanism by which to evaluate the internal flow of communication. This, in turn, can enable them to anticipate questions and concerns likely to arise among the organisation’s external stakeholders.

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In short, communicators should keep their ear to the ground, monitoring both internal as well as external chatter to understand what gaps may exist between the organisation’s goals and self-perception, and external stakeholders’ expectations and conceptions of the same.

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Turning communications into an operational function

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Having this knowledge does not in itself mean that communicators can begin plugging gaps through crafty communications.

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Informed understanding of organisational opportunities and threats is a golden opportunity to reassess not only the way an organisation talks about itself, but more importantly, how it behaves. Analysis of external perceptions can shed a spotlight on corporate practices that are redundant, inefficient or misdirected. In such instances, attempting to adapt the corporate rhetoric without solving the core issues that cause the disconnect can only aggravate the already fragile confidence in the organisation.

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Owning up to shortfalls and acting to address them needs very little supporting rhetoric to make meaningful progress in calibrating perceptions and restoring trust. Communicators are in a powerful position to make the case for organisational change by bringing the potential reputational risks to the management’s attention, and embedding transparency into any remedial course of action.

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Ability to influence management decisions implies a communications role that is part of the management structure – a strategic role integral to an organisation’s operations, rather than a functional position serving to merely report the official company line. Organisations should go beyond introducing grand titles, and truly make communications part of the decision-making process, including board representation where applicable.

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Knowing who your friends are

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Understanding issues and having the right set of messages still does not guarantee that messages will be heard and, critically, stick. Good communications are not only relevant, well targeted and easy to understand. Ideally, they are also supported by sources outside the organisation – those people and organisations who matter to the audiences the communications are trying to reach. Messages delivered by third parties – such as academics, think tanks, industry analysts, or ‘people like me’, often carry more weight than messages communicated directly by the organisation itself.

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Understanding who the influencers within relevant communities are, and finding ways to align with them, should be at the core of communications planning. Having a corporate position endorsed by the people who are personally relevant to your audiences helps create a sense of common purpose and familiarity crucial to building trust.

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Reinventing romance

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Once the organisation enters this privileged relationship of confidence with its stakeholders, the job, in many ways, only begins. As with any relationship, nurturing through regular contact, being in tune with personal concerns and changing needs, creating opportunities for personal involvement with the brand – all of these are key to making sure the relationship continues to blossom.

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And, while apologies may be accepted and amends made, getting it right the first time around is worth its weight in gold in the face of short attention spans, volatile economies, and competitive suitors ready at the door to jump on an opportunity to get involved.

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