OP-ED: Building trust is key in fight against public skepticism

Fifteen years ago, Exxon had just pledged to clean up its big oil spill in Alaska.

Fifteen years ago, Exxon had just pledged to clean up its big oil spill in Alaska.

"I'm not sure I believe that," said David Letterman, "coming from [a] company that can't keep its own rest rooms clean." Fifteen years later, we're still struggling to believe. We're more suspicious than ever - of big business, government, even charities and religious institutions. And with cause. Some new scandal seems to break every day, each one eroding our confidence a little more. Too many promises have been broken. The result: Trust is at a premium these days. We live and work in a world filled with skeptics. That is our current reality. But that reality presents a great opportunity, particularly for us as counselors and communication pros. If trust is the foundation of our success, then we have a special role to play in keeping that foundation strong. To do this well, we must lead the way in the following areas.
  • Employee relations. Make sure your employees understand the purpose, values, and principles of your organization. Are these values visible where you work? Are your values real - more than mere platitudes? Do your leaders and staffers talk about them? Do they bring them to life in decisions and actions? Do you share stories of employees who advance your company's mission in interesting ways?
  • Clear, true, and open communication. Is your communication simple and relevant? Is it free of jargon and misleading nuance? Does it address the most likely questions and provide important context? Are your claims fully supported? Do you listen to your constituents? Are your systems effective and user-friendly?
  • Invest in strategic relationships. We're sometimes judged by the company we keep. Who are your allies? Who will stand with you to offer credible support? Who will help you shape your policies and positions on key issues? Who will give you honest advice? What are you doing to keep these relationships strong?
  • Embrace a cause. What gives your work higher purpose? Do you have a cause that fits with your mission and resonates with employees, customers, and communities? How are you making a difference beyond your products and services? What equity are you building for your organization as a whole? What will help you to win the hearts, not just the minds, of your constituents?
  • Crisis preparedness. When trouble hits, be ready to do the right thing. Have you done scenario planning - identifying your biggest threats and vulnerabilities and developing options to address them? Do you have a crisis plan? Have you done a drill? Are your leaders ready for action during a true crisis? In tough times, will you choose principle over expedience?
  • Admit mistakes. We all screw up. When that happens, will you say so? Will you apologize and take responsibility? Will you clarify what went wrong and what you'll do to prevent similar problems in the future? By taking these simple steps, you'll preserve your base, win new friends, and defuse your critics. Trust is rare. It is hard to earn, even harder to keep, and easy to lose. If you have it, take care of it: You own a most valuable asset. If you don't have it, advance a plan to earn it. Draw on your skills, experience, judgment - and the trust you have earned - to lead the way. Trust still matters. In today's world, it sets you apart because even in a skeptical world, we all still appreciate clean rest rooms.
  • Don Tassone is director of external relations for Procter & Gamble.

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