Trust is at the core of every type of relationship, from friendships to marriages, so why wouldn’t it be central to the bond between stakeholders and businesses? Without this adhesive, so many aspects of organizational success come unglued: reputation, brand strength, customer and employee engagement levels and even bottom-line results.
These days, trust in institutions is hard to come by and it’s not always because said institutions are operating amorally (there are, of course, many that do toss morals aside). Rather, the emergence of social media—an occurrence that blew the lid off all organizational communications, both internal and external—has been a huge contributing factor in declining trust levels. It has also been a game-changer in how companies build and maintain trust among their stakeholders.
“Public trust in business is the level and type of vulnerability that the public is willing to assume with regard to business relations,” says Brian Moriarty, associate director for communications at the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, based on the findings of the Institute’s special report on the dynamics of public trust in business. “It is a critical ingredient for social cooperation and marketing efficiency, and a cause for deep concern when it is absent or threatened.”
With that in mind, to understand and lessen the public’s distrust and to understand the elements that can rebuild it to safeguard reputations, communications executives should consider the following strategies:
â–¶ Embrace transparency. President Obama made a commitment to transparency on his first day in office, but it is a standard that communications executives should have already been enforcing in their own organizations—and for good reason. According to Roger Bolton, senior counselor to APCO Worldwide, “Transparency leads to a better understanding of the firm’s good intentions, and a more informed engagement with mediating organizations and other stakeholders.”
But to be a fully transparency company, executives must “be willing to disclose meaningful, nonproprietary information about the firm’s business, policy and lobbying practices,” Bolton says.
â–¶ Have core values that create value. The modern business environment prompted a proliferation of threats to companies’ reputations, brands and bottom lines. Thus, an organization’s core values—its mission, principles and beliefs—are now critical to gaining a competitive advantage.
“The enterprise must be grounded in a sure sense of what defines and differentiates it,” Moriarty says. “Those definitions must dictate consistent behavior and actions.”
Keeping with the transparency theme, these values mustn’t merely be identified; they must be communicated to all stakeholders, who will then base their trust on how well the company adheres to its promises.
â–¶ Build an authentic dialogue with disparate stakeholder groups. Social media enables authentic communications, making these platforms to building dialogues with various stakeholders. That said, the platforms must be used in tandem with more overarching communications strategies in order to be leveraged to their fullest effect.
“Engage in meaningful dialogues with responsible mediating institutions that have legitimate interests and that influence traditional stakeholders,” Bolton recommends. His recommendation is based on his past experience as SVP of communications at Aetna —namely, when the company was forced to balance the needs of all stakeholders after physicians and patients rebelled amidst the “anti-managed care” backlash. “Create partnerships with groups that can enhance your value-creating activities,” he says.
â–¶ Look for patterns, then take action. Gaps in trust, as well as pressure points that could catalyze a sudden drop in trust, can be found easily by conducting a bit of reconnaissance work, especially online.
“Patterns emerge before public awareness,” says Bob Pearson, president of the Blog Council. “Customers trust us to be smarter on identifying issues. [Executives must] decide that if a hot issue is defined, it must be solved. They [should] continuously integrate online learnings into key parts of the company. Online patterns are clues waiting to be found by companies looking to improve their business.”
Looking for patterns in online conversations also helps shape specific strategies for initiating and maintaining communications with target audiences because, according to Pearson. “You have to get the strategy right in social media before deciding on which tools to use. Through social media, we become ‘conversation architects.’”
â–¶ Be there or be square. “Syndication of content matters more than site traffic, because visiting your site is not customers’ goal,” Pearson says. “[Executives] are expected to just sort of ‘be there’ when needed. If companies don’t listen, customers vote via lack of traffic and participation.”
â–¶ Don’t dismiss ethics as an issue of good versus evil. “Too often we think about ethics as deciding who the sinners and saints are,” Moriarty says. “Ethics and values give us anchors; they serve as stabilizers and shields. In short, values and ethics can drive business strategy.”
Making ethical behavior a central part of your business strategy, Moriarty says, requires a thorough understand of and commitment to the basics:
• Creating value for customers;
• Managing suppliers so that they want to make your business better;
• Managing employees so that they show up and use their brains;
• Being good citizens in the community; and,
• Making money for financiers.
Note that each of these basics addresses a different stakeholder group. This is key to building trust and brand value concurrently and to withstanding the skepticism with which stakeholders view businesses.
“Stakeholders’ interests have to go together over time,” Moriarty says. “Everyone has to win.” PRN
Roger Bolton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Bob Pearson, email@example.com; Brian Moriarty, firstname.lastname@example.org