It’s About Trust: Helping Your Organization Build Relationships

October 13, 2015

[gary waters/ikon images/corbis]
[gary waters/ikon images/corbis]

By the time you reach the end of this article, you will have decided whether you trust me and the ideas I express. We make this type of rapid and intuitive judgment every day. When we meet someone for the first time, speak with a salesperson or watch a politician answer a question on TV, we are quietly assessing whether or not they can be trusted.   

But our judgments about trust are not just confined to people. We also make judgments when we interact with organizations and when we observe organizations handling issues in the public domain. Our radar is on high during a crisis, when time is limited, the stakes are high, and the words and actions of the organization are highly visible and open to criticism.

In addition, we make judgments in everyday life: We choose service providers and products based on our impressions of them, and we judge how organizations manage certain social or environmental issues, like safety or climate change.

As PR practitioners, when we develop strategies for our clients, we pay close attention to the essentials of solid communications plans, including objectives, research, stakeholders, strategy, tactics and measurement. However, there is a foundational element that we need to include on the front end of any plan: building trust. Without trust, the most well-developed strategy, tactics and messages will fail. This is because people don’t believe, and often won’t even listen to, individuals and organizations they don’t trust.

In the PR profession, we often use the shorthand of “building relationships” when what we really mean is building trust. We advise our clients to build relationships before attempting a major industrial project or before our organizations ever experience a crisis. But relationships are not just about meeting face-to-face or having regular communication. Relationships are fundamentally about building trust.

The idea of trust is attracting a lot of attention these days, with various surveys on how corporations are measuring up. Now in its 15th year, the Edelman Trust Barometer quantifies levels of trust in various countries and industries. The barometer is useful for spotting trends, raising issues for further analysis and helping us advise our clients in navigating the trust landscape.

Not surprisingly, business continues to have trust issues. On the positive side, according to Edelman, in 2015, trust in business increased in 11 countries, including in the United States (albeit modestly) from 58 to 60 percent. But trust also declined in 16 countries. In Canada, where I live and work, trust in business declined significantly from 62 to 47 percent.

In my career advising energy and mining companies on major projects and social and environmental issues, I have worked closely with many colleagues, clients, consultants, business partners and community members. As a student of corporate communications and behavior, I’ve also observed, with great interest, the words and actions of many other corporations. I’ve found there are three major building blocks of trust that work equally well for corporations and individuals: integrity, competence, and putting customers and the public first.

Demonstrating integrity

The foundation of all trust is integrity. Integrity includes honesty, having an ethical mindset, and having words and actions line up. If there is no honesty, trust is impossible. And yet, as we know from the news, high-profile individuals and organizations often get this one wrong, particularly when suspicions first arise about questionable conduct.

There are numerous examples, from politicians trying to cover up various personal and professional failings to athletes denying using performance-enhancing drugs. One of the most famous corporate examples concerns the early attempts by tobacco companies to keep their knowledge of cigarettes’ addictive properties and health effects from their customers. So while this element of trust is basic, it unfortunately cannot be taken for granted.

Keeping promises is part of integrity, and it is a key aspect of “walking the talk.” It is an attribute that brand and marketing managers spend a lot of time and money on. When someone walks into a store and speaks to a service representative or buys a product, does their experience live up to the company’s brand promise? CEOs and their investor relations people pay close attention to keeping promises as well, because there is very little that the market will punish more than a failure to meet targets. Much success in politics depends on managing expectations. Much success with client relationships does as well. While not necessarily inspiring, some great consultants have made careers out of underpromising and overdelivering for their clients.

As with honesty, keeping your promises is basic but important. If you tell a client you will call them the next day and you don’t, that is a broken promise. And people tend to pay very close attention to these little promises. It is better not to promise anything than to make a promise and not keep it.

Displaying competence

The second building block of trust is competence. When deciding if we trust an individual, we often ask questions like, Does this PR consultant know what he or she is doing? Is this lawyer experienced? Will this mechanic repair my vehicle properly? When we’re deciding if we trust an organization, we often focus on issues of social and environmental significance as well as performance. Does this manufacturer build cars that stay out of the shop? Is this company managing the safety of its employees in the most advanced way?

Competence is different from integrity, and we often see this attribute underscored when we make trust judgments about individuals. We might encounter a service provider that is honest and keeps its promises. We will therefore trust them to a point. However, if they don’t appear to have a solid grasp on their area of expertise, we will have a hard time trusting them enough to want to work with them.

Putting customers and the public first

The first two building blocks of trust — integrity and competence — are essential, but they are not sufficient without the third, which is rarer than we think. People and organizations can be honest, keep their promises, and know their area of expertise, but if we don’t get the sense that they also have our best interests at heart, we will not fully trust them. The saying that people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care addresses this attribute, which is about putting your customers and other external stakeholders first, before the short-term interests of your organization.

As society and business continue to evolve, the need for business to put the best interests of society ahead of short-term profit is becoming more pronounced. This evolution is challenging economist Milton Friedman’s famously narrow concept of corporate social responsibility: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

It is not so much that Friedman’s thesis is changing; it is that what shareholders value is changing. Shareholders are increasingly recognizing that maximizing profit depends on putting society’s interests first. In the energy industry, we are seeing this shifting dynamic at work in the increasing level of attention shareholders are paying to how corporations are addressing climate change.

One relatively simple way for corporations to send the message that they are putting the interests of the public and their customers first is to help customers save money or use their products more efficiently, which often means using less of it. Such actions are seen as counterintuitive to the profit motive, yet paradoxically these types of actions often lead to higher trust and higher profits in the long run.

Skilled salespeople intuitively understand this concept when they advise us to buy a less-expensive product or service than we might otherwise think we want. When a salesperson recommends we spend less money rather than more, they are sending us a powerful message that our interests are above their own. They are also gaining a loyal customer who will trust them for life.

When building trust, think of integrity and competence as the price of admission. But real trust-building depends on demonstrating to our customers and the public that we put them first, ahead of any short-term profits.

Daniel Goodwin
Daniel Goodwin leads external relations for Shell Canada. His writing has appeared before in The Strategist and in various newspapers and periodicals.


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