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?


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