We used to take trust for granted, and we depended on that unmentioned certainty. Then the Internet blew it up. We need to reclaim it.

Traditionally, our institutions did little to earn trust. They asserted it and people gave it, presuming that governments, news media, academia, financial institutions and markets, even religions had some internal makeup that informed their judgments and substantiated their authority. Raw power, whether over our lives or afterlives, was a core component of that authority: people trusted them because people were afraid not to.

Trust wasn’t a cost to them, only a benefit. That’s a textbook example of a market externality.

The Internet changed that dynamic when it provided visibility into institutions and made data on their actions more accessible.

It turns out that behind the walls of institutions are individuals, each with her or his own biases, agendas, and imperfections. They, like brands, have rules and rituals attached to them, but they rely on people to live them. That means institutions can make mistakes and do things for the wrong reasons. They can and do lie. There’s no reason to implicitly trust that they’ll do otherwise; in fact, we’ve learned to trust that there’s probably some ulterior motive, whether unconscious or sinister, behind every institutional action.

Because that’s how we view one another.

Suddenly, the cost of trust has skyrocketed and there’s no clear path to affording it, let alone reclaiming it.

As a business communicator, I run into this conundrum every day. Clients have things to say but lots of stakeholders simply don’t trust their authenticity, accept their relevance, or believe that they’re true.

My firm is constantly experimenting with ways to overcome these challenges, and I can share at least three promising tools:

First, stop declaring victory. Every press release or social announcement that touts an accomplishment is inherently untrustworthy, because everyone knows or suspects that 1) The story is more complicated, 2) The word/image choice is intended to persuade more than prove, and 3) Every milestone leads to the next. This is a particular chronic problem in the B2B space, where companies declare an endless stream of firsts, bests, and mosts as if the broader context and associated truths can be swiped to the side with a flowery executive quote filled with buzzwords.

Companies earn trust by sharing what’s left undone as often, and as honestly, as they highlight their achievements. 

Second, process is everything. This isn’t the same thing as “radical transparency,” which is a wet dream of the digerati that has no basis in lived experience. But it’s true that stakeholders today want visibility into how things get done, which is how companies can reveal the why of what they do. This means sharing accomplishments and disappointments; in fact, the latter can be far more trustworthy than the former. It’s also content that usually comes with uncertainty, suspense, and humanity…all qualities of meaningful communications. 

Companies earn trust by letting stakeholders into ongoing, imperfect, and incomplete processes.

Third, never talk alone. I grew up in a world where media interactivity meant yelling at the broadcast TV screen; now, stakeholders have the ability to react (vet, share, rank, respond) often before content is made available publicly. It never ceases to amaze me or my team that companies act as if these conversations are somehow after-the-fact or that their content has any inherent meaning apart from this engagement. Instead, why not involve stakeholders in the content: For instance, make an announcement to employees and position that as the news, or share something with another stakeholder group (or critic) and announce it. 

Companies earn trust by acknowledging conversations that decide its validity, not simply throwing out content in hopes of influencing it. The mechanism is the message.

Like the costs of pollution, the cost of trust is no longer outside the purview of our opinion or financial markets. The genie is out of the bottle: Everyone knows that governments know one thing and say another, auditing firms miss things, news media can’t be wholly objective and academics sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about, markets do not treat all participants equally or fairly, religious leaders are human beings, not saints, and brands weren’t invented to stand for things but rather sell things. 

We business communicators need to understand these costs and figure out how to address them.

Trust isn’t free anymore.

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