How big business can regain public trust

26 Jan 2012

What a week it has been for reputations - the media’s, the government’s and that of big business.   Set against a backdrop of phone hacking and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry,  the week kicked off with the latest results from Edelman’s annual ‘trust barometer’, which, whether you agree with its methodology or not, found that there’s been a huge shift in public opinion with regard to the aforementioned three institutions since this time last year.

Given that the issue of trust is key to managing reputation, we’d be surprised if there were many PR’s and professional communicators who weren’t already aware of the barometer’s key UK findings:

  • that trust in the government has fallen from 43%  to 38%
  • that trust in business has fallen from 44% to 38%
  • that, despite a tumultuous year dominated by the ongoing hacking scandal, trust in the media has increased from 22% to 37% (Broadsheets saw a 47% increase in trust compared to tabloids which saw trust increase by just 14%, the lowest increase seen in all the media institutions. It’s also worth noting that whilst trust in social media has increased, the majority of the public, 56%, distrust it as a news source).

So, great news for the media  but it’s a shame the same can’t be said for governments and business (their respective diminished standing not helped by another ‘cash for access story’ mid week).

However, Alex Deane,  Head of Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick, remains optimistic about the future of business and its ability to bounce back in the popularity stakes, and not just because he’s an elected  Common Councilman in the Square Mile.

“I still trust CEO’s and their judgements,” he says. “We have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in this country. In California, people don’t trash talk Silicon Valley like the British do the City.”

Here, we share his insights into how he would help overturn negative public perception. If you’re in the business of reputation management in whatever sector, we advise you to take note.

  • Be honest: “In most cases, people are averse to open, frank, intimate and informal conversations - they’re often too concerned about risks to their reputation,” says Alex. “However, those social cues are exactly what convinces people that the speaker is being honest. Don’t be afraid of being honest in a professional capacity, it’s the foundation of trust.”
  • Engage your audience: Remorseless engagement has to be the order of the day. Across all channels, across all platforms.
  • Be consistent: Twitter is a good example of where businesses and organisations can do both well and badly when it comes to reputation management. By signing up to social media platforms, there’s an implicit suggestion that an organisation is wanting to engage with its audience. However, according to Alex, engagement has to be ongoing and consistent - regardless of whether the issues being discussed are positive or negative.  “If you don’t want to talk openly, proactively engaging with The Public AND engaging with criticism when offered,  then you shouldn’t engage at all.”
  • Education is key: “Most British businesses are highly ethical, but are terrible about conveying that,” admits Alex.  In order for business to win over hearts and minds, business must educate the public into its values though regular, timely and transparent communication.
  • The power of PR: “It may be a cliché, but crises offer opportunities as well as risks,” says Alex.  “If a business is willing to spend its way out of recession and invest in good PR, then they’ll fare better in the storm than the competition. If they survive the storm well, that in itself can be in an organisation’s best interests over the long term.”

Alex Deane is Head of Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick. He was a former chief of staff to David Cameron, as well as working in a senior position at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.

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