In my eyes and in the wake of the disruptive digital force shaping our present and near future, building and nurturing trust and influence with all your stakeholders is one of the very key issues that any executive should put first on his/her strategic agenda. As a crystal-clear proof, take a look at The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been substantiating this critical trend for almost 15 years. In many countries and not only Western, there is a sustainable and growing distrust towards politicians, media but also companies and anyone else embodying the “establishment” or the official “knowledge”. With its lowered technological barriers and the ease of creating transnational relationships, brands and corporations live in a networked society that totally reshuffles the cards at a blistering pace. Citizens can get access to much more information than they were allowed in the past. As a direct consequence, it also raises awareness about the on-going issues and makes things trickier to hide or manipulate.
This assessment matters for corporate brands as well as product brands. People no longer take things for granted when a brand or a corporation speaks. People require to be heard and involved in projects that impact their own lives, backyards or aspirations. People expect to be part of the solution. As an example, you can refer to palm oil. People are increasingly paying attention to social and environmental topics. Consumer goods firm Unilever, acting on the demands of tens of thousands of consumers, is committed to purchasing all of its palm oil from sustainably produced sources by the end of this year (2015). And if you try to fiddle, the likelihood of being caught in the act is higher and higher. Especially by activists and NGO who are at the cutting edge of digital connectivity.
A few years ago, fostering trust was probably a bit simpler as the main intermediary was the journalist. The latter has become suspect for many reasons. Among them, narrative bias, sensationalist reporting or complacency with the mightiest (politicians, corporations, governments, etc.) are often fiercely criticized. This is why nowadays it is not enough to only focus on them although media relations remain pivotal in a strategy. You must talk and actively listen to NGOs, groups of interest, regulators, employees or anybody concerned by your activities. If you don’t do that, you put your reputation at risk and might trigger distrust against your activities.
The incredible Volkswagen fraud story provides a relevant case study. For several years, this company has hammered strong messages about “clean diesel” at the corporate and brand levels towards consumers; but also to their own collaborators and the various stakeholders in the markets in which they’ve been operating. It turns eventually out that the company cheated on purpose by using a specific software reducing gas emissions on demand during approval tests. Despite millions and millions spent on advertising and public relations, it shows that cosmetic communication is pointless. Even worse, it generates distrust at the end of the day. And today, the German car manufacturer has to fight not only against justice, regulators and media but also car dealers, car owners, NGOs, class action groups who loudly express their concerns.
Nowadays, almost anybody is able to know something and unveil it all over the world through social networks, online petitions or even whistleblowing platforms because they want to call to action. From now on, the challenge is therefore to restore the damaged trust and reputation of the company by acknowledging what needs to be said, by taking concrete actions to abide by the laws but also by proactively listening to the concerned stakeholders and meeting some of their requirements. It will take time and money but there is no loophole. Sacking the CEO was a good first decision for Volkswagen, but the controversy is far from being over. Today, they are under close scrutiny from whoever is concerned. They will have to make the right decisions leading to a refurbished but trustworthy reputation. And I bet my two cents that similar stories will occur at other companies if distrust remains at these high levels. The winners will be those inspiring trust by leveraging a smart dialogue with their stakeholders.
CEO Heuristik Communications, a consultancy based in Paris
Author of “Le Blog du Communicant” (in French)