Sandra Macleod, Echo Research: Solve the trust equation

Organisations can no longer simply claim the high ground, stakeholders must believe it too.

The biggest issue that organisations around the world face today is trust.

Big is no longer good - for governments, banks, companies, institutions, the internet or religions. It used to be enough to have a well-known brand, but what matters now is knowing how your organisation stacks up when it comes to things that matter in the eye of the beholder - your reputation for what among whom.

This is not to say that organisations in the corporate world and public sector have failed to improve. Many can proudly point to significant changes for the better, but there is a long, challenging journey ahead when it comes to restoring trust.

The media, the message, the control - all have disappeared in a world of direct digital dialogue and soaring expectations of transparency, good governance, fairness and proper discipline. In Echo's latest global study on corporate responsibility, A World in Trust, one CEO remarked: 'You are no longer looking at a pure product or company; you are looking upon that product or company as it relates to the world.' That relationship between a company and its stakeholders is more crucial to its survival than ever.

In the report, we've tracked the drivers of this change in the trust equation, especially since the recession, and its implications for international business leaders and thinkers. Governments must step up and business leaders must challenge their decision-making and actions with a view to the long term.

According to another CEO interviewee: 'It's easier to operate where governments are clear and realistic about indigenous economic development and understand the drivers for employment creation.' A third added: 'No good company survives by ignoring trends that newer employees out of universities pay attention to.' Short-termism may be expedient, but it is a cancerous practice.

A new language is emerging alongside the new thinking that is inspiring the best and most successful. Discussions about 'values' are now jostling with those about 'risk' in boardrooms. 'Authenticity', 'engagement', 'culture' and 'passion' are starting to define the 'corporate soul' of organisations.

As always, it's the simple things that are the hardest. Clarity of sustainable, strategic goals and vision, and single-minded commitment from all are easy to say but difficult to achieve. One respondent said: 'There's no point having a department trying hard to come up with scorecards (and measures) if the organisation as a whole is not committed to it.' Only when organisations think, do, behave and deliver in line with what they promise will trust be restored.

And organisations themselves can no longer claim the high ground. It will only be believable when others say it for them - the employees, the customers, the community, the investors, the opinion leaders, the policy makers ...

Strategic and professional comms ensures active listening, provides honest and evidence-based guidance to leaders, and encourages constructive stakeholder engagement and dialogue. This is the life-blood that turns the inside of an organisation out for all to see, so it becomes a trusted and valued organisation and employer. This is the ultimate 'licence to operate' that must be sought.

Simply measuring familiarity or favourability is yesterday's game. Looking instead at how you are increasing stakeholder engagement, passion and, above all, advocacy and trust is for today. And all our tomorrows.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

General Motors has restored its financial fortunes and is even looking to float. Ford has been quietly powering ahead using social media in a strategic way.

- What is the most important lesson to have emerged from the BP saga?

One is the need for a strong and trained leader to manage external pressures - without self-pity. Also collaborative stakeholder engagement, including competitors and NGOs, to address problems together rather than taking charge, managing (and failing) alone and floundering in a xenophobic sea.

Sandra Macleod is group CEO at Echo Research

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