Corporations need new outlets to build trust

Companies need to find new ways to build trust, say PR pros in reaction to the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found consumer trust is still dropping in the US.

Companies need to find new ways to build trust, say PR pros in reaction to the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found consumer trust is still dropping in the US.

According to the survey, trust for business, government, media, and NGOs in the US was only 46% – a drop from 54% in 2010.

While the traditional ways of building trust—such as focusing on employee satisfaction or getting listed on best places to work surveys—are still important, Mike Lawrence, chief reputation officer for Cone, says most companies fall short on building trust through online communications.

“Very, very few companies have kept up online,” he says. “I continue to see fear, corporate speak driven by lawyers and a lack of resources to address these issues online.”

The 2010 Cone Shared Responsibility Study, which surveyed 1,045 adults last April, found companies may have less to fear than they think. Sixty three percent of respondents said they feel better served by companies or brands when they can have a conversation with them in a new media environment.

An example of a company which does an excellent job of two-way communication online, Lawrence says, is JetBlue, which, for instance, has used Twitter to help customers with their issues.

“JetBlue obviously has full-time people who constantly monitor stuff posted about their customer services experiences,” Lawrence tells PRWeek. “They understand if a company is missing the dialogue that at best they've missed an opportunity and, at worst, failed to restore trust.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, says one way companies have looked to increase trust levels is through strategic partnerships, including with other businesses, government, non-profit, and civic groups.

“I think that helps restore trust because those partnerships often reach into communities,” she says. “They've always been there, but the number of them seems to be increasing and building, which is a good thing.”

In terms of giving a corporate face to trust, Gaines-Ross says audiences are becoming more receptive to the CEO and other official and expert spokespeople. She believes their role in trust has become more important, not just because of the difficult economy, but because of information-overload caused by digital technology.

“There is just so much information out there and that has really affected people in terms of asking, ‘Who do I actually trust? And who is responsible?'” she says. “I think that's why there is a movement afoot to establish credibility and trust among experts.”

The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed the CEO has become a more credible spokesperson, and there's also increased trust for official spokespeople such as academics, employees and government officials.

Still, without proper media training, Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, says CEOs who become more visible aren't necessarily going to help their company be seen as trustworthy.

“Many CEOs tell me they have a very hard time not being all CEO-like as soon as they get behind a podium or have a microphone and/or video on them,” he says. “The general public does not trust the stuffed-shirt CEO. The company needs to dedicate time, that most haven't previously done that, to un-stuffing that shirt.”

Bernstein says once that happens, corporate PR departments should start recording their CEO speeches and interviews and posting them online so they can reach a wider audience.

“No matter how excellent a writer is, nothing in writing communicates as well as someone's face and voice,” he says. “With the ability to frequently video whatever a CEO happens to say and wherever, more companies need to make those available through their presence on the Internet.”

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