Messaging Trust and the Decline of Peers

Person Like me trust

This is not an easy topic, trust. Because our perception is colored by many factors that range from the personal, to the professional, and everywhere in between. Trust, like influence, is contextual. To answer the question: who do you trust? honestly, we'd probably need to say "it depends".

How you tell a story is as important, if not more important, than the story you tell. It's also important to remember that you can tell the story you want with words, as well as data. Numbers and statistics can be used creatively, too. I was fortunate to work with a leading expert in financial forensics.

The yearly Trust Barometer by PR Agency Edelman is designed to uncover the level of trust people have in business, media, other institutions, like government, and correlate that information to reputation. Methodology: research firm StrategyOne conducted 30-minute phone interviews with the following sample:

5,075 informed publics in two age groups (25-34 and 35-64) in 23 countries. All informed publics met the following criteria: college-educated;household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.

I wrote about the definition of trust as prediction of reliance on an action and its consequences. Do you trust what companies say? Or rather do you trust what the people who work there do?

Trust and messaging

It looks like in 2011, trust in academics and experts continues to be high, while trust in people like you has declined. Does that mean we trust the people who are humanizing brands less? Or does it mean that everyone has reached capacity when it comes to noise in social networks?

Do people trust CEOs more because the other choices are less appealing? Or is it because they're so happy to have a job they'd do and say anything to keep it? If you've encountered aggressive and unethical peer behavior, you're probably choosing the least of two evils.

Would your answers change with your circumstances? Can trust be regained when lost?

People want to trust. One of the charts in the survey that caught my eye is the one that talks about how repetition impacts believability. Say one thing long enough or enough times, and you believe it yourself — which makes it so much easier to get others to believe it.

Repetita iuvant

Why in communications having a good story and telling it consistently helps position a business for success. So if you want to improve the reputation of an organization, one of the places you look to fix is how it tells its story — and improve messaging and communications.

Many organizations do have a communication problem, and in that case, better, more frequent, and open lines of dialogue with the people who form its communities — employees, customers, channel partners, etc. — help bridge the perception gap.

When organizations have more fundamental business issues, those need to be fixed with other means. And no, social media won't help until deeper decisions are made. However, we are seeing too many organizations trying to communicate their way out of a process, product, or business model problem that needs fixing.

As for the decline of trust in peers? Same difference. How do you walk the fine line between positioning and actual experience, for example? Does more talk mean less walk? For reputation, you know what they say — once burned, twice shy.

Trust as protective agent

Among the key findings articulated by Richard Edelman, President and CEO, is this idea that trust is a protective agent, yet not the only element you should rely on as you consider the reputation of your business and organization.

Edelman summarizes four key factors in the trust/reputation equation:

  1. Business has to look at performance and purpose
  2. It's about multiple voices and multiple channels — elaborating on this one, mainstream media, new media, social media, and owned media are all necessary (I would be curious to hear the definitions of new media and social media; how do these two differ?)
  3. There's a demand for new behavior at the top –this is about leadership behaving as private diplomats (here Edelman suggest that organizations put skin in the community/innovation game)
  4. Trust is a protective agent

You see the pattern, it's "both/and", and it's about espousing a new behavior — PR as public relationships.

One interesting observation I have, actually two, about the findings. Related to the survey, I see a pattern in the data, and while the balance has shifted a little in favor of NGOs, for example, they are all connected.

Modern communication tools, our ability to speak with people on ground zero, where something takes place, and to see what they see, has torn down much of the barriers that existed to insulate businesses from governments, for example.

Everything is connected, and we are all connected — whether we like it or not. The other observation, which flows from this one, is that professionals are more deeply connected to the reputations of the organizations they work for or with than in the past.

When trust is down in the organization, does it impact the reputation of the people who work there more than it used to? What about being associated with individuals who have a certain reputation?


If you enjoyed this post from Conversation Agent, subscribe, share and like it.

0 responses to “Messaging Trust and the Decline of Peers”

  1. To me, it seems “informed respondents” lends itself to biased respondents. How’s that for a measure of trust?
    If all survey respondents report keeping up with business/news media and politics several times per week, they’re no doubt exposed to a great deal of optimism toward CEOs and business, as every economy is trying to realize some kind of real recovery. Likewise, here in the States, we’re being inundated with bi-partisan hackery, splitting the country effectively in half.
    If repetition increases believability, and 59% of people trust things they’ve heard 3-5 times, consider how an endless stream of corporate spin and political division makes up the bulk of the news these days, and how the results might be a survey showing people trust CEOs and Wall Street, while turning a more cautious eye to their neighbor.
    Edleman’s points don’t jive with me either. Seems like a corporate version of Klout. Trust is a protective agent, sure, but where there is genuine trust, from what do we need protection?
    Seems insincere. Still, interesting topic. Trust is key to it all.

  2. I’m with Brian, above. There are a lot of things implicit in the Edelman survey, and we all need to be careful articulating them.
    One of the concerns I have about the parts of the Barometer you have focused on is that it is very old-PR-focused. It assumes the problem is to ‘get the word out.’
    Let’s be clear: if you’re doing good and the world doesn’t know it, then yes–you need to crank up the messaging systems, get better PR, get the word out and so forth.
    If, on the other hand, the world thinks you’re doing more good than you in FACT are, then you have no business cranking up the messaging systems–you should be fixing the product, changing the organization, making the company more trustworthy itself.
    The simplest, highest-level, indisputable fact from the 11 years of the Trust Barometer–and the 40-plus years of the General Social survey–is that trust has declined, not increased. And one has to posit that a major reason is the insistence on conclusions like repetition.
    This has long been a problem of PR: the idea is too often just to get the word out as often as you can, through as many channels as you can. Pump. Hype.
    The result is not more trust, it is a degradation of the currency of trust. It gives temporary symptomatic relief–but it contributes to the cynicism of the world. It is the leading cause of spam filters, do-not-call lists, private networks, time-shift media recorders and premium networks–because we’re all sick of hearing the same ‘messaging.’ I’m a little surprised at your emphasis on how repetition builds believability; I thought we learned that in spades with Goebbels and 1984. Repetition is value-neutral at best–it’s hardly an unalloyed virtue.
    A basic limitation of the Edelman Barometer is that it measures a trustor’s evaluation of a trustee. You cannot separate them. If I say I trust banks less than I did last year, you have no way of knowing from that data whether banks have become less trustworthy, or I have become less trusting. Or both. Or one but not the other, and we can’t tell which.
    So media companies looking at this data end up just reading about the impact of messaging. They forget the more fundamental social issue of corporate trustworthiness.
    We’d all do better if the great discussion that is being provoked by the Trust Barometer would focus a little bit more on creating responsible, trustworthy behavior, and a little bit less on the smile ratings.

  3. @Brian — as I highlighted in the post, to me the key is behaving differently. And yes, fixing the problem comes first. That is why creating messages about trust is hard. Much better to walk the talk.
    @Charles — interesting, because what I wrote is that behavior is key. “Messaging trust”, writing about trust is not that same as being trustworthy.
    You might have overlooked this part “When organizations have more fundamental business issues, those need to be fixed with other means. And no, social media won’t help until deeper decisions are made. However, we are seeing too many organizations trying to communicate their way out of a process, product, or business model problem that needs fixing” and this one “it’s about espousing a new behavior — PR as public relationships” and this one “Modern communication tools, our ability to speak with people on ground zero, where something takes place, and to see what they see, has torn down much of the barriers that existed to insulate businesses from governments, for example. Everything is connected, and we are all connected — whether we like it or not.”
    This is your second comment on my blog. Both were made on posts about trust and Edelman. The first one in March 2009. I’ve written at least another 5 posts on trust, if you set up Google Alerts on this topic. Two of them mentioned Edelman. Let’s be clear, I don’t believe in messaging, I believe in conversation – my whole blog is about that, in case you missed it. I have done extensive public relations and community relations work with organizations throughout my 20+ year corporate career. My counsel is truth and honesty. I learned about trust from facilitating conversations while building communities of practice in my spare time.
    You should spend more time reading my work. If I didn’t know any better, I’d rate your comment as condescending.

  4. Valeria, this was a bit of a difficult blog post for me. When I think of repetition, I think about corroboration as increasing trust. If a customer sees a billboard that says, “Company X makes the best WonderousWidget” and then the same customer talks to a Customer Service rep and hears the same, talks to an in-store rep and hears the same, seems like that could increase trust, even where the employees are coached to say the right things. Repetition can look like corroboration, which we all want before reaching our verdict. The jury will hang or even go with the defendant if the evidence is too thin – They want corroboration.
    It’s interesting that CEOs are more credible. I like your thought that the average person like me or you has some how reached our social media value limit. This to me is an interesting question that could be a whole ‘nother conversation: “Or does it mean that everyone has reached capacity when it comes to noise in social networks?”

  5. If you think about it, how do you know that what someone is telling you is the truth? In real life situations, you get to experience if they walk the talk. It takes time, you can accelerate it only if you pay close attention and have repeated exposure to the behavior.
    With social media, we now have online relationships many consider real — especially in the new generations — when they never were tested by experience. So how do you know what anyone you meet on Twitter, for example, does? Because they said it many times in their bio, and the blog, and in casual conversations. CEOs don’t spend their time online with previous titles. They just appear at the helm of an organization, with a little bit of professional profile that shows the pathway to success. On the other hand, you can see the profiles of many people in social morphing from “tech guy” to “futurist” in the span on a couple of months.
    Repetition can look like corroboration. I tend to get bored with repeating information. Why I write about such a diverse range of topics to illustrate business connections, idea execution, etc. It is a hard topic to tackle with a post. Trust is so contextual, it’s about behavior and conversation.

  6. Hi Valeria,
    In the spirit of repetition a comment to your December 2008 post on trust:
    “Having reflected on your post I’m convinced that the current crisis in trust is casualty of our growing impatience.
    I haven’t read the speed of trust. But if the title was a question I’d say the speed of trust was the speed of conversation and observation – I’ve found time to be an excellent judge of both character and predictability.
    Of course there are proxies for time, a persons word, an analysts report, my expectation of what is right and just. But these are the poorest of substitute for patience.
    Working with eastern companies I see a spirit of patience in commerce that is sadly lacking in many western companies who sacrifice “real” trust for speed -only to find they are out of business sooner than their competitors.”
    For me the question is not who to trust but figuring out how to trust well.
    Too late here to engage on the question of repetition. Personally, If you’ve got something to say and your the only one saying it you need to say it more than once. In fact, you may have to say it a 1000 times before what you say is heard.

  7. Hey Valeria,
    One of the concerns I’ve had related to the discussion of trust is that the entire nation seems leaning toward and pushing for transparency.
    There is nothing wrong with transparency per se, except when it is requirement. When you think about it, transparency is generally the remedy for a lack or trust or broken trust. Unfortunately, people are attempting to use it much in the same way a magician might say “look, there’s nothing up my sleeves.”
    Instead of preaching transparency and digging deeper into the lives of everyone, we might be more concerned about reestablishing authenticity, which is trustworthiness without transparency.
    Let’s face it. We only ask people to be transparent when we don’t trust them, never when we do trust them.
    Thanks for the conversation. This might be a topic a explore soon, bring you into it. I also found many of the comments here worthwhile.
    All my best,

  8. Just to be clear, Valeria, I know where you’re coming from; the message and the brand should come from action – not spin. 🙂
    My point was more to the way the Edelman report struck me, personally, as someone who has never been in the marketing industry.
    The repetition piece, combined with implied loss of trust in one’s equals, was a fork in the outlet of mainstream media and bi-partisan political rhetoric. I see society being repeatedly told the economy is recovering, and that their republican/democrat neighbors are the cause of all the problems in our country today.
    I suspect you’d agree, the Edelman findings appear to deal with something of an almost commoditized, inflationary trust. Just curious, was all.

  9. @Peter — speed is at the center of so many things today. Patience is helpful, and I say that after having lived with my own impatience for a stretch so far. Your comment reminds me of more than one discussion with senior leadership about branding and business strategy where someone mentioned putting lipstick on a pig, or being aspirational in our communications. Coming from an area of Italy that is famous for its pork products, you can imagine how vividly I saw those attempts at making the best out of not wanting to change. They taught us in Latin that “repetita iuvant”, there’s benefit in repetition. It now turns out that committing to memory expands our ability to think critically. I still remember how many times I repeated poems, geometry and physics. To this day, I remember the names of all the major Alps that crest Italy because of a silly phrase our elementary teacher taught us. Repetition does make a mark.
    @Rich — in reading your comment I could envision two contrasting scenarios, and I agree I have no interest in knowing it all. Authenticity is another oft misunderstood term. Why not ask for honesty, keeping one’s word, making actions ethical and grounded in values with respect for each other? There is a reason why the Golden Rule is so appealing. Even though everyone may act in self interest, when it is other-centered, it works much better for everyone. Looking forward to your further thoughts. Personally, I also think that many don’t trust themselves first, which then begets suspicion toward others.
    @Brian — it has become a mass conversation, when it originates in personal intimacy and relationships with others. There can be little substitute for experience. However, today we see and read and reach beyond what we can experience first hand. And those global situations have local repercussions, which is why we need to pay attention and wave red flags as necessary. One word comes to mind with where we are, unsustainable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *