Analysis: Open communication gains corporate trust

Last week's survey on brand trust from Edelman threw up some unlikely names in the top 100 list of trusted brands. Simon Ellery finds out why

It came as no surprise that non-profits such as Amnesty International and the WWF were listed among the UK's most trusted brands last week.

But eyebrows were raised at a top tier that included corporate giants such as Ford, HSBC and Shell.

The trust survey gives PROs ammunition because it claims that corporate trust is based on action underpinned by open communication. According to the survey, 20 per cent do not see company spokespeople as credible while just nine per cent trust corporate advertising. 35 per cent rate 'experts' and those with no vested interest in the company such as academics, doctors and representatives of NGOs, as the most trusted.

The survey was conducted by Edelman's StrategyOne through interviews with 450 opinion leaders across Europe, including 150 in the UK. StrategyOne CEO Steve Lombardo says: 'This is the first study to demonstrate that you can't buy credibility through paid media, you have to "be it", through actions and transparent communication, conveyed through media by independent advocates.'

This has, of course, been received wisdom in parts of the PR industry for a long time, and there are specific reasons for each of the major companies' successes in securing trust from key stakeholder groups.

Ford of Britain's MD of corporate comms John Gardiner puts the company's seventh position down to several factors: a 100-year history, its wide presence through a 600-strong dealer network and its market leading position.

'The values of the brand have to be substantive and go to the heart of the company,' he says. If the company does not live up to the image it is trying to portray - you lose trust.'

PR's role in the mix is making sure consumers understand the brand's values while getting the message through to employees: 'You can't PR an illusion. At the end of the day brand values have to be substantive.'

HSBC towers over its peers in sixth position. But its position is due to a co-ordinated effort to dissassociate itself from rival UK banks and its integration into its Asian parent.

Pharmaceutical brands rank low on the list but leading its industry is Pfizer, at 18th. The group's European media relations director Colette Goldrick ascribes its performance in part to the high-profile success of wonderdrug Viagra, but blames the wider lack of trust in the drugs industry on rules which bar firms from promoting products to consumers and a rise in generic prescribing so the company name and even the brand are not on the packet.

To counter this companies including Pfizer run patient association groups, and partner with NGOs and with government agencies: 'They all play a role in breaking down distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.' On top of this the company has run a corporate responsibility programme for around 20 years, based on working with governments and NGOs to fight disease in the developing world: 'Its not enough to be good at your core business.

You also have to demonstrate significant levels of corporate responsibility,' she adds.

The Edelman findings come as boardroom paranoia about brand perception intensifies - an obsession reflected in the mushrooming of measurement tools: from the FT's Worlds Most Respected Companies to the Dow Jones sustainability index. All of these underline the commercial advantage stakeholder trust proffers.

And yet gaining trust is not easy. As well as the specific circumstances of individual companies, there are fundamental guides to follow in building corporate trust, best summed up by branding firm Wolf Olins senior consultant Nigel Markwick, who says the qualities that make a brand trustworthy are the same as those that make a person trustworthy: 'Do they sound credible? Do they deliver on the things they promise?'

Despite the success of companies such as Ford, HSBC and Shell, the private sector remains behind the non-profit sector in being trusted by the public.

Indeed there are lessons to be learnt from such aorganisations as Amnesty.

The human rights group maintains impartiality through not accepting government funding and only publishing material after painstaking research. But its transparency is shown through its very structure. A democratic movement, it operates a variety of communication channels with members such as newsletters but also hosts open AGMs where members can effect changes in policy.

Marketing director Kerry Hutchinson says: 'Our effectiveness comes from trust in the first place. Communication between our staff and members is very open and transparent.'

Edelman UK CEO James Thellusson says: 'We are at the point in time that the PR industry has wanted to be for ages. People are educated and cynical about what they are being told by companies direct.'

The survey gives PR strategists support in the fight with management for openness. And as some firms have shown, it is possible to garner trust and make a profit at the same time.

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