by Chas Withers

February 4, 2015

Building trust is at an all-time low. If that sounds like hyperbole…it’s not. We’re living in a world where more people than ever don’t believe what they read or hear, question almost everything and are demanding greater transparency – while being skeptical of what they might actually find out.

The latest findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer indicate “an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the Great Recession of 2009.”  Governmental entities, in particular, are inspiring less trust than ever before (which doesn’t exactly come as a surprise), while media are now distrusted a full 60 percent of the time. Remarkably, traditional media have fallen behind online search engines as a trusted source for general news and information.

For those in the for-profit business realm, most troubling is the deterioration of trust for companies after an uptick on the heels of the financial problems of 2008-09. A dubious regard for the credibility of CEOs has resulted in only one in three people saying they trust senior leaders as spokespeople for business organizations in the developed world.

The fundamental issue for many companies is that in an age of enterprise risk management, legal worries and global diffusion, being proactive about forging relationships and paying them off through insight and follow through has fallen way too far down the priority list. Companies have gone insular, made legal considerations the ultimate trump card and failed to understand that part of the consequence is increased distance – and decreased trust – with those partners that carry the most influence.

Does it matter?  I think the answer is decidedly yes.  Consider that nearly two-thirds of people refuse to buy products associated with companies they don’t trust, with more than half of them willing to openly criticize a business to a friend or colleague. Such a lack of trust equals diminished sales, which equals eroding share, which equals tardy efforts to repair credibility – often without enough goodwill equity in the bank – which, ultimately, can equal crippled corporate value and job loss.

Trust, of course, has always been the most sacred coin of corporate currency.  But too few organizations are taking active steps to rebuild or inspire confidence. Obviously, it requires a long-term, concerted initiative, driven by honesty, good intentions and a willingness to engage audiences on good and bad (and yes, there is a risk associated with that).  However, the risks of not rebuilding trust are far worse.

Social scientists and behaviorists tell us trust comes from a combination of knowledge, rapport and belief, all of which are tied directly to communication and connection.  With that in mind, now is the time to rethink how to rebuild, repair or renew relationships tied directly to trust, and tied directly to adding enterprise value as a result.

Here are a few simple steps to capitalize on your corporate assets and intellect, and rebuild trust among the constituencies that matter most to your organization:

1) Measure sentiment 

To get a gauge on current perspective, solicit input from internal audiences and from those audiences that can make a material difference in your business (customers, shareholders, communities, etc.) on how they view the company – its leadership, communication, performance – all with an underpinning take on trust.  Myriad tools are available to get an empirical pulse quickly and inexpensively. Whatever the feedback says, it’s going to be helpful in setting a future course and identifying gaps.

2) Listen  

Is your organization able to monitor and measure, in real-time, what is being said about it and by whom?  A mere 20 or so years ago, corporate communication was largely a one-way discussion. Today, sentiment can change in an instant, go viral and result in a critical crisis before anyone is even aware, unless you’re actively implementing steps to understand when trust has been questioned. Again, this is a place where tools are springing forth constantly that provide market access at a reasonable price. Instant information and insight are invaluable in the trust equation, and far too few companies really have a dashboard that helps facilitate that perspective.

3) Communicate  

Start internally, and get serious about helping your associates understand the strategy and vision (and that means time and commitment, not just lip service, on the part of senior leadership), and give them reasons to believe and facts that support. Then take that same approach externally – and it’s fine to be cautious – and begin explaining the issues that can drive your business in 2015 and beyond (be it new products, an acquisition, a new supply chain solution, etc.). Corporate story-telling is the ONLY way for reporters and media – who are under immense capacity constraints themselves – to develop some facile understanding of why they should care, to ask questions or to build rapport. It’s a simple question:  Do you want to tell your own story, or trust someone else to do it for you?

4) Explore and embrace new channels for connection

We’re in the midst of 20 years of profound change in communications that far exceed the changes in the previous 200 years, as social channels layer on top of a sizable mound of existing communications media and models. The simple edict should be, “What got us here won’t get us there,” and that means companies have to be open to examining how their audiences are shifting and what adaptation has to be made to facilitate meaningful dialogue and interaction that inspires trust. Not an easy task, and probably worth gaining some outside perspective on prioritization and “right-fit” models, but the bottom line is that developing and cultivating trust with customers, stakeholders, governmental entities and publics at large is evolving at breakneck speed while corporate entities drag behind – with trust eroding the whole time.

Companies have a million things to worry about today. Global competition, keeping up with technology changes, rising costs, finding and keeping the best talent, having a winning culture and the everyday challenges that come with enterprise management are all on the list – and yet comprise only a small part of the overall consideration set of issues.

For the best companies, a common denominator is trust, and it’s increasingly difficult to maintain, much less cultivate. Trust is on a global downward slope, and it’s time to move it up on your corporate priority agenda.