The Collapse of the Trust Bank, and What to Do About It

Trust in institutions is in crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, there has been a collapse in the community’s trust in the U.S. government institutions from a high of 73 percent in 1960 to an all-time historical low of 18 percent in 2017. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that institutions around the world in general are more trusted, but not by much: the global average slipped to 47 percent in 2017.

It is clear that we, as communication professionals, could be doing more in this environment to effectively communicate the purpose and meaning of the organizations we work for, in particular those organizations that are pursuing meaningful change to benefit their communities.

Communicators have a great challenge indeed, because we need institutional “substance” to stop the freefall of trust. When we don’t have it, the temptation is to resort to spin, and spin’s new face, “fake news,” which, we all know, is one of the most deadly and effective ways of killing trust and destroying the reputation of an organization in the long run.

A study conducted by the UBC Sauder School of Business found that, “In the era of fake news, less scrupulous businesses are using deceptive tactics to smear their rivals. But companies that spread fake news against their competitors ultimately experience the brunt of negative publicity and reputational damage.”

We do not know if we have touched the “trust floor,” but another victim of the lack of trust is truth itself. It’s harder than ever to separate lies from the truth. Fake news and spin are a way of corrupting communication, and with it, the perceptions of government and organizations. Take, for example, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index from 2016, in which the global average score is 43 (on a scale of 1–100, with 0 being “very corrupt”):

Building trust through truth

Trust is based on transparency, consistency, and integrity. It is about people and processes and, above all, it is about evidence.

From our point of view, trust has three main pillars: trust in the people who narrate a story, trust in the story or narrative itself, and the way we build it, and trust in the processes we use to disseminate narratives and share them with others.

Pillar 1: People
We need to choose spokespeople who have the community’s trust, and we need to involve the community in this process, and work with the people within communities who the community perceives as trustworthy.

Pillar 2: Stories
How can we know something is true or false, evidence-based or pure imagination? Reliable sources of information and fact-checking will help us to establish the crisis in trust. Not because we present our evidence, but because we can open ourselves to public scrutiny. It is open, it is transparent and risky. But it’s effective in building back trust.

Pillar 3 Processes
But it is not just evidence but the way(s) we go about presenting this evidence in telling our story. We have to create ways where the community can interact with us. Gone are the days of unidirectional communication. Emails, Twitter, blogs are ways of getting this feedback.

In short, we have to participate more actively in the way institutions work on communicating what they stand for. We have to be at the decision-making table and show reputational leadership, being part of the strategic conversation early on rather than an add-on at the end. Communicators’ first responsibility is to tell our executives that the only sustainable miracles we can produce are those that have institutional substance.

We have to build trust not to the public but with the public. We have to create two-way communication using all available technology.

We have to train spokespeople who relate to our audiences, and/or work with others who are already trusted in the community. The days of just having CEOs and executives representing the organization are coming to an end.

In the current trust-challenged environment, the institutions that do not embrace the trust-building way will continue their inexorable way to extinction.

Written by Victor Del Rio for CW Magazine.