How to Build Trust as a Competitive Advantage

As professional communicators, we are acutely aware of the importance of trust in building our organizations’ reputations to achieve whatever outcome—commercial or otherwise—we’re seeking to achieve, whether it be increasing donations for a nonprofit, enhancing purchase consideration, changing people’s behavior for a government agency, or gaining positive word-of-mouth (and votes) if you’re a political party.

Trust is the currency of today’s socially connected world. It’s where the marketing and communication rubber hits the road.

But we can’t buy trust. It needs to be earned, and this is where so many brands come undone. Because earning trust is hard on many fronts, and it requires a whole-of-organization approach.

The erosion of trust comes from a fundamental misalignment of actions with words, from the top right through to the bottom of the organization. Critically, this can compound any existing lack of trust, leading to a widespread freefall of trust in a brand if the situation is not rectified.

While we can’t stop our clients (or the organizations we work for) from doing stupid things that can lead to the erosion of trust—although hopefully sometimes we are in a position to influence the outcome for the better—we can be strategic and proactive in how we help build public and stakeholder trust in our organization, and the people who run it.

Put another way, we shouldn’t be overly distracted by the things we have no control over, but instead focus on where we can have a genuine impact, and that is building a reputational garden bed from which to nurture and grow the green shoots of trust.

The Trust Bank

The best form of defense to a problem or issue that potentially will test people’s trust in your company is to actively build a strong brand with a universally trusted reputation. Build it before you need it, as the old saying goes.

McDonald’s has been doing this for decades with its “Trust Bank,” a concept created by PR consultant Al Golin, founder of the PR firm Golin and author of the book Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow.

While the Trust Bank concept was based on involvement in the community resulting in “deposits” of trust from its customers, a key area in business often driven by PR pros, the idea of banking deposits of trust today—on an ongoing basis—remains a valid one.

Buffer, the company behind the social media scheduling tool of the same name, is a textbook example of how a strong and trusted reputation can help a company get it over a crisis that could have sunk many other brands.

Several years ago, Buffer’s signature software app was hacked and caused all sorts of grief for the company’s growing customer base (not to mention the business itself).

Buffer’s response represented best practice crisis management in today’s digital age, with the Buffer team, led by founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne, furiously blogging and tweeting on how they were fixing the issue (you can read Gascoigne’s response here).

Buffer bounced back quickly from what could have been a fatal reputational wound for the company. Yes, it had handled the issue well, but just as important was the level of trust and goodwill the business had chalked up in advance of the crisis, in large part due to the excellent content it had published online, as well as its strong and open participation on social media. (At time of writing, the Buffer Twitter account had 390,000 tweets to its name, and nearly a million followers).

While building trust is about demonstrable actions taken and behaviors exhibited over time, it also requires a certain mindset. It needs senior leadership to first understand and acknowledge that lack of trust is a broad-based issue that’s deeply embedded in the community and is very, very real. They then need to sign off on doing something about it.

From a PR perspective, doing good things in the community is one thing, but it’s how you go about communicating it that matters. Are you beating your corporate chest, or genuinely putting the cause or issue ahead of your own your own interests?

Being open, honest and transparent as an organization is also a great start, but this will only work if communicated in the right way. Again, the combination of social media engagement and content plays a key role here.

I’m a big advocate of content-driven communication, and the notion of becoming a trusted source of information about your organization and the industry in which you operate.

This concept requires your business or organization to become its own media channel. Rather than waiting until you’ve got some boring announcement to make, you publish content on an ongoing basis, such as:

  • “Utility” content that’s useful and helpful to your audience.
  • “Leadership” content designed to spark conversation around a big picture topic or issue relevant to your business or industry.
  • “Corporate” content, which conveys your company news in an open and transparent way, as well as takes people behind the scenes of your organization.

So, what can we do? What’s within our remit as communicators that can help build trust for the organizations we represent?

I’ve outlined some ideas below. Now, they won’t solve the trust issue on their own, but they will—when used in concert—help build a foundation from which to work.

Focus on humanity

As my business partner and author of The Social Executive Dionne Lew likes to say, we trust (trustworthy) people, not logos, physical offices or faceless organiz ations.

Businesses and organizations are made up of people, yet we do our best to hide them from the public. Why?

Focusing on human stories is a catch-all for many things, including some small activities that add up over time, including the following:

  • Feature employees on your website and social assets, not stock images (see Buffer’s Twitter banner image below).
  • If you publish a blog post, don’t post it by “admin,” use the person’s name, photo and contact details, including Twitter and LinkedIn links, so people can connect with them personally and continue the conversation if required.
  • Empower staff to use social media. The online retailer Zappos is a great example here. Zappos employees receive special Twitter training and are encouraged to share updates about what they’re doing at work.
  • Train one of your team in the art of “social reporting.” Free them up to create real-time content that not only takes people behind the velvet rope of your organization, but also helps build upon your corporate narrative.


Focus on using internal technical experts

The Edelman Trust Barometer tells us year after year that technical experts are one of the most trusted sources of information for a company or organization.

That being the case—and it has been for years—why aren’t organizations purposefully bringing their own experts to the fore? This should be a strategic imperative.

We now have all the tools at our disposal to create our own media. To do this effectively, we need to create content that people will be interested in and trust. We need to take notice of experts. Identify them, work with them to create content on behalf of the organization.

It might be a lead engineer in charge of a major infrastructure project, an up-and-coming economist who works for your firm, or a property lawyer with a strong point of view about some new legislation that is about to be introduced.

Get them out there! Create a content-first social PR program that revolves specifically around your experts. Use the myriad publishing platforms at your disposal (blogs, YouTube, podcasting, social media) to inform and educate the public on topics and issues of interest and relevance to them, tied back to your business and industry. Educate your experts on how to use social media effectively, and empower them to interact with the public on topics relevant to their area of expertise.

Partner with external experts and academics

Apropos of point above, academics also rank consistently as highly trusted sources in the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Consider partnering with academics and other external independent experts to shed light on topical issues confronting your industry, for example.

Bring them into the fold and create content around their ideas and insights, using your own people in the process.

Get the CEO (and other leaders) out from their shadows of the boardroom

CEOs have perennially languished in the trust stakes. Last year was a watershed year. This headline from CNBC said it all: “Trust in CEOs plummets and hits all-time low.”

As PR and communication practitioners, how can we have an impact on this?

First, it’s our responsibility as professionals to start edging CEOs and organizational leaders into the spotlight, but not in a way that’s overly polished and scripted, which has traditionally been the case.

If we take an authentic content-first approach—that is, being the media channel itself versus defaulting to pitching to reporters all the time—it enables us to produce quotes, stories, insights, ideas and anecdotes that might be interesting to our audience, but not necessarily news from a traditional media perspective.

One way to do this is to shoot video of your leaders riffing straight to camera. These videos should not get the full bells-and-whistles production treatment, however, as people tend to skip over anything too corporate on social media. Try using an iPad or iPhone, on a tripod, with a simple microphone. No need to add music, logos or special effects. We want to see the whites of your leader’s eyes. These videos can be effective and cheap to produce. They should also be short enough to publish to social media.

A great example is Shayne Elliott, the CEO of ANZ, one of Australia’s Big Four banks, explaining the company’s “New Ways of Working” on Facebook:

What do they speak about? That, my friends, is where our skills kick in! It’s our job to guide that process.

Blogging, too, can be effective. Let’s again refer to Joel Gascoigne of Buffer, who wrote a wonderfully open and transparent post the other day titled “Buffer Reports Buffer in Q4 2017: Profit Sharing, Reflecting on 2017, and Ending the Year with Rest.”

Ditch the spin, jargon and weasel words

Along with a misalignment of actions with words, nothing dents people’s trust in a person or institution more than the incessant use of impenetrable language.

The public can smell bullshit a mile off. So why do companies still insist on using words that put people off, or worse, lead them to ignore you altogether?

Business generally needs to get better at this. Often, as communicators, we haven’t got the final say, but we need to get better at trying to influence the outcome.

If you’re guilty of using words that you know aren’t going to fly with the public, start weeding them out. Write copy that is more accessible and conversational in style, use words people use in real life. Push back when others try and steer you toward using jargon and corporate-speak. I know this is hard. I’ve lost this battle many times over the years.

It all starts with content

Many of us in PR are welded to a traditional media-first approach. Our default is to deal with the media before trying to become the media.

Yet half the public, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, are disengaged with the news. Put another way, they consume the news just once a week.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer also tells us that nearly seven in 10 respondents worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon.

Again, this is something that’s largely out of our control. But we can combat this by becoming a beacon of hope, by helping the organizations we represent to genuinely become trusted sources of information in their industry and communities.

If the public doesn’t trust the media, that’s all the more reason to become the media. A caveat though: If your organization is not trusted by the public, all you’ll be doing is joining the growing band of untrusted media.

Written by Trevor Young for CW Magazine.