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The erosion of trust and the power of communications to rebuild it

Institutions used to be trusted pillars of society. The financial crisis damaged the reputations of many professions and companies. They became places that could no longer be dependable to 'do the right things'. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer highlights once again that people continue to mistrust business, government, NGOs and the media.

I argue that trust still exists but there has been a fundamental shift in where, and with whom, that trust sits. In today's social media-driven world, people are more inclined to trust other people, their peers; friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, even strangers.

If I think about our roles as internal communicators, we have two primary goals. Firstly, we can help our organisation articulate a clear direction of travel – so that our people can do their jobs. Secondly, we have a role to play in engaging and inspiring our people – so that they can do a great job, and, become ambassadors for our organisation. 

With this in mind, there are three key areas where we, as internal communicators, can help to build, or rebuild, trust…

1. Support the development of the vision and mission of our organisation.
2. Help our leaders communicate authentically with their people
3. Facilitate peer-to-peer communications

A clear vision…

Professional services firms like my own firm, KPMG, and many other companies, provide social good of some form or another. KPMG, for instance, through the work that it does every day for clients gives reassurance to the public that British corporations are being managed properly. 

So let's not shy away from talking openly about our social purpose. Let's help our companies define their narrative, support our leaders as they articulate their stories and how we truly do help society. 

Let me provide an example; Swiss Re provides insurance for insurance companies and generally speaking have very little direct contact with end consumers, like you and me. And yet Swiss Re has a compelling vision with a clear message that it does help society; 'We help make the world more resilient'. 

A clearly defined vision gives purpose to employees, it gives them a narrative that their friends and family can understand and relate to. It also connects a company with people across society – a connection that can build trust.

A for authenticity…

Human nature is that people trust people, and people care about people. And our leaders are people after all. They will be more effective and believable if they are authentic, reveal their vulnerabilities, and show empathy. 

A personal and authentic response was far more effective than a corporate response in the case of Air Asia, whose CEO, Tony Fernandes, put himself in the spotlight after a tragic crash in 2014 that killed 162 passengers and crew. In the immediate wake of the accident, Fernandez was quick to act and took centre stage. He made himself available to media (and on social media) at any time of day or night, to become a focal point for company updates. 

Fernandez showed us his vulnerabilities, and by doing so he demonstrated that he and his company had empathy and that it cared for its staff, customers, and their relatives. In a situation where trust could have been broken, he managed to maintain it.

Power to our people…

If people trust people, then we should trust our people as communicators and willing ambassadors for our organisations. Employee advocacy can be an incredibly powerful tool, internally and externally. Give people a voice and that voice can be amplified.

We should empower our people to talk freely about the organisation they work for, give them platform to do so, and arm them with stories to share. And that is just internally. If we are brave, and give people a voice to speak externally, just consider the potential reach amongst their networks – it's huge! Thousands of employees talking positively about our companies and what we do. 

If we think for a moment about KPMG in the UK – we have 15,000 employees. That's 15,000 trusted individuals and influencers with stories to share. 15,000 people who can articulate the social purpose of our industry and firm. Thousands of people communicating peer-to-peer is far more powerful than a single and faceless corporate communication.

The human touch…

If I go back to my opening remark; Institutions used to be trusted pillars of society. They were the days when companies where a lot smaller and people had direct contact with people; their local bank branch manager or doctor, for example. Trust was built around enduring and tight-knit relationships. As institutions have grown and technology has removed that human-to-human interaction in many aspects of what we do, it is no surprise that the institutional trust has gone.

So what do we need to do more of as professional communicators? Kill our corporate voice and inject more of a human touch to the way we speak to our people, our customers, and wider society. That might sound simple on paper, but as I am sure we can all attest to, it is so much harder to do in reality. So let's dare to be different, and as corporate communicators to become a little less corporate and a bit more human! 

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Wednesday, 18 September 2019
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