When your intentions are good, you are doubted. When your products are good, people assume there is a catch. When you tell a positive story, people assume you are hiding something. There is no benefit of the doubt, only a higher degree of skepticism than ever before.
It is not just “bad” companies that suffer. Being a good company, selling a good product, or supporting good policy is no longer enough to get people to listen to your message. In this environment, PR pros need to rethink how they present their messages. Credibility, rather than persuasion, must be the first task on your to-do list.
The truth will not set you free. Many communicators believe that communication issues are a matter of “educating the public.” They argue that they can “set the record straight” if only they can get people to understand their point of view—the “truth.” But in a world of skeptics, there is no objective truth – only your data and your story versus what the other side says.
To build trust where none exists, you must take the hard step of accepting your audience's view of the truth. For example, most local electric utilities are regulated monopolies. To the utility, its regulated status imposes severe restraints on how it operates. To consumers, the utility's monopoly status means the utility has unlimited power to take advantage of consumers. There is a huge perception gap. But trying to persuade consumers to change their opinion almost always fails. To build trust, the utility must accept the customers' view and find begin the process of engagement from that perspective.
Embrace weakness. Traditional communications strategy suggests you should tell your story and stick to your message. Leave no room for doubt. In a world of skeptics, this approach is a trust-killer. People no longer believe in the perfect product, policy, or company. To persuade them, it is often necessary to embrace your weaknesses to earn the right to credibly talk about your strengths.
Many people have been critical of Domino's recent ad campaign focusing on criticisms of its old recipe and the launch of a new one. But it represents a great example of turning a weakness into a strength. Though they have to live up to the hype they have created, Domino's certainly gave many people reason to try their products again. And early numbers suggest the strategy worked extremely well.
The process of building trust is often an uncomfortable one because it requires communicators to have a certain amount of vulnerability rather than stoicism. But with that vulnerability comes credibility and with that credibility comes a real opportunity to be heard above the skepticism.
Michael Maslansky, is CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics to be released May 2010.