Regaining Trust Mixes Patience, Owning Mistakes and Authentic Communication

While a few crises never seem to end, often with good reason, companies and organizations eventually need to return to relatively normal footing. That’s when a priority for communicators is helping regain external and internal trust.

Public trust in “my employer” rose during the pandemic, as did trust in business generally, according to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer.

Yet, what constitutes trust is a vast topic. And, as you’d expect, there are diverging opinions.

An August PwC survey of 500 U.S. executives, 800 employees and 1,000 consumers found the three groups agreeing the word trust prompts thoughts of: data protection and cybersecurity, treating employees well, ethical business practices and admitting mistakes. Beyond that, there was little agreement (see chart).


Trust: Agreement and Divergence

In a recent PwC survey about trust concerns:

•    “Data privacy” and “cybersecurity” were the most-named trust concerns by executives (70%) and consumers (62%)

•    A majority (52%) of consumers and execs named “ethical business practices”

•    46% of employees and execs named “admitting to mistakes quickly and honestly,” yet 49% of consumers did

•    “Responsible AI” was named by 27% of consumers and employees, but 43% of execs

Source: PwC, Trust in US Business, Sept 2021, (1,000 consumers, 870 employees, 503 executives)


Yet the importance of trust seems undeniable. PwC chief Tim Ryan tells Fortune CEO Alan Murray, in a video, that trust emerged as the top item following a two-year conversation his firm had with clients. How to get more of it with all stakeholders was a major concern.

For this article, we’ll concern ourselves with regaining trust after a crisis. So, how to do it? A fan of directness, Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce (yes, that’s his title), offers a basic tip. Paraphrasing a recent Afshar tweet, ‘How to earn (and regain) trust. Don’t lie.’

While Afshar is correct, Crisis Insider dug deeper. We asked communicators about ways of regaining trust in general and then inquired about doing so in sectors such as technology, cyber, food, politics and social justice.

A Long-Term Effort

For Meredith L. Eaton, N. America director for Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, there’s a time element in rebuilding trust. While many companies are in a rush to regain trust after a crisis or incident, the best ones understand it can’t be done overnight.

In “The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It,” Sandra Sucher and Shalene Gupta point to Michelin’s 10-year effort to regain trust after a labor crisis.

Moreover, while it’s a cliché, it’s also true: Trust is regained daily.

“Fixing something in the moment is one thing, but then following through repeatedly to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” is critical, Eaton says.

In addition, months or years after a crisis, it’s vital that a company be able to communicate and prove it’s done what it said it would do to prevent future crises, Eaton adds.

Transparent communication is a key to doing this well, says Jenny Wang, a VP at the Clyde Group. Communicate with appropriate transparency about your mistakes, she adds, “and talk about the path forward and the actions you’re taking.”

Eaton concurs. “For the public to trust you again, you have to make them feel as if they’re in the fold,” through transparency and authenticity.

Importantly, Wang counsels addressing regaining trust internally, with employees and other stakeholders. While steps for regaining internal trust sometimes are overlooked, today’s hyper-competitive, low-retention employment market seems to demand that organizations be cognizant of employees’ needs, Wang adds.

“In some ways, it’s better for companies to communicate first with employees.” Even when a company acts kindly via a community-based effort designed to build or restore external trust, it can “ring hollow and seem performative” if employees are ignored, Wang notes.

For Washington, D.C.-based communicator Cedric Brown, regaining trust centers on the human element. A key, he says, is understanding those whose trust you are seeking to regain.

“The thing that most organizations, and people, get wrong is that they don’t take into account the feelings and opinions of the parties” a crisis impacted most severely, he says.

Brown adds, “Sure, you can offer an apology. But if your corrective actions don’t have input from members of the groups you offended, your efforts ring hollow.”

In, sum, when rebuilding trust after a crisis: think long-term; practice constant follow-through; communicate steps taken with authenticity and transparency; aim externally and internally; and get input from affected parties.


Food: Push Your Values

Food can be an unforgiving industry, says Hinda Mitchell, president, Inspire PR Group.

“For consumers, food safety is a non-negotiable. We simply expect the foods we eat to be safe and for food and restaurant companies to have strong prevention programs,” she says.

Mitchell says two things can restore trust in the food sector after a recall or a related issue. First, lean on common values with consumers. “They want to know that you care about keeping food safe as much as they do,” she says. Reinforce that ‘the safety of our foods matters; my family eats it, too.’ This can help soften the trust loss of a recall or illness outbreak.

Similar to the general advice on regaining trust is demonstrating a commitment to corrective action. “Put [such actions] in place as swiftly as possible and commit to taking additional steps to prevent the crisis from recurring,” Mitchell says. “The measure for a food or restaurant company is in the appropriateness and haste of the measures taken to make it right.”


Tech: Locate Cause, Avoid Blame

When a technology product fails, it’s critical to discover the source of the problem. Once you know where the problem is, “it becomes a statement of fact; you have a cause and a possible solution.”

Whether a breach, loss of data, downtime or otherwise, companies need to understand where the issue is coming from–internal or a third-party–and how to address it fast, Eaton says.

Recently, Eaton counseled a tech company in a crisis where an iconic brand’s software was causing the malfunction. It became a delicate dance for the company she advised to explain it was the iconic brand’s fault, without deflecting blame. “Finger pointing is never a good look,” she says.

Instead, regaining trust meant the company communicated using careful language that it was doing ‘everything it could’ to clear the situation and get users back online. In addition, it expressed empathy with users.

Ironically, in some situations, Eaton says, regaining trust can be easier when your company clearly is at fault, as opposed to when a third party needs to admit culpability.

When your company is at fault “you can counsel that it should apologize and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” That’s easier than looking elsewhere for a cause and getting a third party to admit a mistake.

Cyber: Just the Right Amount

Similar to trust-building steps noted above, regaining trust after a cyber attack hinges on transparent communication.

For example, let customers know “steps taken to shore up defenses and support for affected stakeholders,” says Ted Birkhahn, founder of HPL Cyber. Make sure stakeholders know you’re “sparing no expense or effort to right the situation and enhance security protocols.”

But do not over-communicate. That could tip off threat actors about past or present vulnerabilities, or specific actions taken to protect the network, he adds. It’s a fine line between regaining trust through alleviating stakeholder concern and tipping off hackers, Birkhahn says.

Social Justice: Input

For Brown, organizations fail to regain trust when they ignore input from target groups.

He points to the NFL and its fumbling of the Colin Kaepernick situation. Since absorbing heavy hits in the wake of the Kaepernick situation, the league “has amplified its investment in marginalized communities,” Brown acknowledges.

Yet Kaepernick remains sidelined as a player. No team has signed him since he knelt in protest and the NFL has failed to solicit Kaepernick’s input on social justice.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Brown says.

Politics: Apologize Genuinely

Though political crises come in many forms, when politicians appear overly defensive, deflect blame or obfuscate after a crisis, they reduce their chances of regaining trust, Wang says.

Similar to the above advice, she advises “earnest apologies” and telling the public “what steps you’re taking to become more aware” of your faults.