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Navigating in an Age of Distrust


Expert analysis from Piaras Kelly, Director of Corporate and Financial Communications at Edelman.

We exist in a world without common facts and objective truth, and at a time of information overload, people are finding it difficult to navigate who and what can be believed. The implications are serious, as we witnessed with the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

Globally, the truth is under attack and the consequence is a loss of belief and trust, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer which surveys 33,000 people across 28 countries.

In Ireland, the study shows a marginal increase in trust overall, but Ireland, along with the majority of countries, remains profoundly distrusting. Of the four institutions that the Trust Barometer measures – Government, Business, Media and NGOs – 40% of the public expressed confidence in business to do the right thing.

Despite this, the study shows an opportunity for business to lead in rebuilding trust across society.

63% of respondents in Ireland say CEOs should lead change rather than wait for Government. They want business to be proactive in addressing issues around health or the environment rather than waiting for legislation and regulation to be imposed. The clear message is that business has an opportunity to lead in the restoration of trust. To achieve this, the business community has a responsibility to meet the expectations of shareholders but also to meet the expectations of a broader set of stakeholders – employees, suppliers, Government and regulators. 

So how should companies take forward their trust building mandates? Here are five recommendations:

  • Measure trust
  • Proactively tell your story
  • CEOs have a mandate to lead
  • Act like a media company
  • Empower your people to tell your story

Measure trust

Trusted companies are employers of choice, they are more likely to have their products and services recommended, they attract a premium for their products and they present an attractive investment proposition. Managing and improving organisational trust is a key issue in the boardroom, but as the saying goes what gets measured gets managed. It is imperative to establish the baseline level of trust in your organisation, the trust building behaviours that various audiences expect and the actions the business can take to build trust.

The Edelman Trust Barometer can assess the level of trust in any company or brand and provide recommendations to build trust. Importantly this is not simply about communications, it is about identifying the unique behaviours, values and operational action that a business can take to build trust. Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi eloquently summed this up when discussing the company’s recent reputational issues “We don’t have a PR problem; we have an ‘us’ problem—we have behaved poorly.” Given the high levels of distrust, the behaviour that a company displays and the values it operates by matters more than ever. 

Proactively tell your story

In the age of fake news, companies need to have a proactive communications strategy, or they risk losing control of their narrative. Given the general public’s growing concerns about the veracity of information, it is incumbent on all organisations to proactively engage with audiences to reach them first with the truth, rather than being on the back foot having to refute false claims. For example, the National Dairy Council is now proactively addressing ill-founded rumours in Ireland about the health effects of consuming milk products as more consumers avoid dairy due to online pseudoscience.

CEOs have a mandate to lead

When asked the most important responsibilities for CEOs, trust-building is job one, alongside providing quality products and services, operating ethically and living up to company values. Each of these are prioritised ahead of profitability and share price, reflecting the trust building levers which the public prioritise.

People expect business to act in the interest of society and employees are more likely to work for companies that share their values and have leaders that advocate on issues. We are witnessing this in the US at present, where CEOs have spoken out on behalf of their employees and customers on basic values including tolerance and diversity.

Act like a media company

While this year’s research showed renewed trust in mainstream journalism, the communications world has fundamentally changed with the public getting information from a wide variety of sources. Companies need to move from relying on mainstream media toward a more comprehensive communications approach that incorporates a variety of channels. By creating their own content and proactively telling their own story, business can ensure that people are better informed about what they do, and how and why they do it.

Empower your people to tell your story

This year’s research shows a resurgence in credentialed expert voices such as the CEO, technical and academic experts. This is coupled with high levels of trust in employees to tell a company story. Organisations need to empower their people, so they can go out and tell their story on their behalf in any medium – whether it’s in the press, online or in person. The grassroots campaign to boost the HPV vaccination uptake in Ireland is a good example of this in practice with the HSE developing materials for GPs and pharmacists, as well as building a coalition of NGOs to advocate for the vaccine.  

Piaras Kelly is Director of Corporate and Financial Communications at Edelman. To find out more about Edelman’s research business (Edelman Intelligence), please contact Piaras at piaras.kelly@edelman.com. 

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Directors in Ireland. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. The content of this blog is for information purposes only and the Institute of Directors in Ireland is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied.