Influence and reputation: Building a better relationship with your residents in the age of fake news

People’s growing distrust in government, big business and the media has allowed for the incubation, growth and explosion of disinformation. Will Walden, Public Affairs and Government Relations lead at Edelman, explains.

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Key points

  • Public policy needs to be about responding to perceptions that the system is rigged. We must give more to society than simply products and services.
  • If your comms content is going to be effective in delivering trust and building relationships it must be about listening, understanding, admitting, and explaining.
  • Trust is developed through authenticity, built upon by being open with what you know and what you don’t.

A crisis of empathy

The election of a TV reality star to the most powerful political office in the world. A ‘dead’ Russian journalist in Kiev. The advent of fake news.

None of these, taken together or in isolation, are the product of the ‘disinformation agenda’ that underpins them.

They are instead the product of trust. Or to be more accurate, the product of what informed commentators see as a catastrophic decline in trust across the establishment.

People’s growing distrust in government, big business and the media has allowed for the incubation, growth and explosion of disinformation. It’s driven a rise in populism. It’s brought uncomfortable change.

And crucially, at a time of unparalleled innovation in the way we communicate with our stakeholders, our customers and our communities, it has left us looking like we lack empathy, understanding and authenticity. 

Even if local councillors and local councils have consistently remained more trusted than national politicians (see Perceptions: The fact and fiction of trust and satisfaction), it is not too big a leap to suggest that the global decline in trust is the single biggest challenge to effective communications across the world in the years ahead.

And yet it happens in every walk of life, appears mundane, and could so easily be solved.

Take a small example – the brilliant recent documentary on obesity by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In it we are treated to one of the many millions of everyday examples of the erosion of trust.

In one scene a grown man is seen scurrying away from scrutiny. This man spends a good deal of time dodging Hugh, his questions and his cameraman. His name is Jeremy Hunt. 

And it’s not the dodging that is the issue – silly as it is. The whole thing is farcical and even funny. After all he’s not the only one doing it. The documentary highlights a host of big brands nervously avoiding scrutiny. No, it’s the promises associated with the dodging that are the issue here. 

‘I’ll do an interview, only not now’, is the gist of what the Health Secretary tells our host. Only he never does. And, despite repeated assurances, neither do any of his juniors. And people look on and they trust us just that little bit less.

It’s a silly example. But if we are to build effective relationships and better manage institutional reputation it does at least demonstrate that we need to stop taking our communities for granted.

To do that it’s worth discussing why trust has been eroded, what a lack of trust looks like, and how we better leverage it in the years ahead.

Because, whether you run a small business or a global corporation, a local council or a big city your stakeholders, your customers and your communities have one thing in common. They are all both voters and consumers. And in the end, if we get it wrong, they rightly bite back.

Take the referendum result. My Brexit motives were shaped not by trust but by worry, over an ever-closer political union with Brussels. Yet for millions of others it was about trust. The result was, at least in part, the product of a decline in trust that began long before voters went to the polls.

It can be traced back to what voters saw as broken promises over many years from government/politicians, business leaders, NGOs and the media. Studying trust in these four groups for 17 years it is clear that for much of that time it’s been in decline.

For example: when migration from EU accession countries spiked even though the Labour government said it wouldn’t, trust haemorrhaged. When our savings evaporated, our houses were repossessed, and our standards of living stagnated, yet the bankers went unpunished, trust haemorrhaged. When carnage in Syria went unchallenged and politicians shrunk from their responsibility, trust haemorrhaged.

No wonder people now vote with their feet. Consumers, customers and the electorate are rejecting the establishment orthodoxy. Only this time it’s happening at a never before seen intersection of global connectivity.

The way a leader responds to reputational risk has probably never been more important, and thanks to social media, never more in the crosshairs. 

Ask United’s bosses if dragging that doctor from his seat improved passengers’ confidence in the airline. Or ask the boss of another airline, Qatar Airways, whether his company’s reputation has been enhanced by his claims that running his business is too complicated for a woman.

Local government can’t rest on its laurels, we are all a poor decision, a rogue tweet or a filmed piece of bad behaviour away from a reputational crisis.

The power of advocacy

Yet for years the orthodoxy of effective comms for many private companies and big public services has been to say next to nothing, admit nothing, do nothing and move on. In today’s interconnected global world, driven by opinion, 24-hour news and social media content, that just isn’t feasible, let alone logical or indeed possible. 

Comms orthodoxy needs to be framed much more as a two-way conversation with your communities. At the heart of that conversation is trust, and to leverage trust effectively in order to build relationships, communicators need not just new tools but cultural change.

Yes, of course, those new tools will be all about innovation – digital campaigning, algorithms, micro targeting, new media platforms.

But it’s not the how you reach people that matters as much as the how you advocate. And that’s about changing culture.

Why? Because we will all innovate to some degree in the years ahead. But, if we can’t advocate effectively it won’t matter that we innovate at all, because effective channels don’t work without authentic messages.

Take Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer, which revealed an historic low when it came to trust in social media, and a yearning for ‘trusted’ sources of conventional news.

No wonder then that when we asked who respondents trust the most they sighted experts and ‘people like myself’.

By ‘experts’ they don’t mean establishment figures, they mean clever people at the coalface. By ‘people like myself’ they don’t mean those of you reading this – they mean people with similar backgrounds, values and understanding as themselves.

In other words, if faced say with a pinned tweet from an energy company, respondents are much more likely to trust the content of that tweet if it’s delivered by either: a thirty something engineer; or indeed a person that looks, sounds, and feels like themselves.

There is a place of course for leaders to lead communications, and true the more charismatic, the more trusted. But communications directors often mistake building all their messaging around their boss, their leader or their CEO. Leaders as communicators must recognise that for once, less really is more.

Does that mean then that we should rip up the conventional playbook in the future? Deliver our messages unvarnished? And in the hands of the bloke who started with the firm yesterday? No, of course not.

Content will always need to be engaging, compelling, creative, and dynamic. But if it’s going to be effective in delivering trust and building relationships it must be about listening, understanding, admitting, and explaining. And if needs be it must say sorry, empathise and be honest. Above all it must be authentic.

One of the principal reasons for a loss in institutional trust is that elites haven’t listened to public concerns. If we are to have any hope of reversing that decline, we need to listen to that concern and we need to take action. Whether that’s about policy that responds to perceptions that the system is rigged, or its about business acting in a more purposeful way, we must act. We must give more to society than simply products and services.

Trust is developed through authenticity; built upon by being open with what you know and what you don’t; earned by demonstrating you are listening; and delivered by showing you have both a plan in place to make sure things change and that you deliver on that change.

In truth we have lost sight of what matters in effective communications advocacy because we fear the consequences of giving communities the ammunition to make up their own mind. It’s time that changed.

Further reading

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer