A Question of Trust

Posted 28 August 2017.

​By Claudia Macdonald, Founder and MD, Mango Communications.

​I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. Having flown recently, it strikes me that trust is largely what gets us in that plane and hurtling across the skies. I don’t know how to fly a plane, I just trust that the person up front does; and that trust of the airline and its pilots is what keeps me flying.

Trust is big in business too. But less and less so. Today, accepting a person’s handshake as their word seems ridiculously naïve. Contracts are essential and in our industry we need to know a company is credit-worthy before we can even accept their business. As companies become more global, with the ‘return of value to the shareholder’ the glue that binds our every deed, we no longer trust people — we trust their balance sheet. I realise there are crooks and white collar criminals out there, it’s just we’ve become so distrustful now that it colours who we believe and how we act.

As our general election approaches, the issue of trust will be questioned and, possibly, found lacking. The primary role of politicians prior to elections appears to be convincing voters to trust them to perform, keep their word, deliver on their mandate; while the opposition tries to demonstrate all the ways in which their counterpart cannot be trusted.

It is often through the information shared by third party channels that we build trust. When I first went into journalism I had been taught to believe the news media was an objective, independent source of unbiased information: something you could trust to tell you the truth – or at least to lay the facts before you to assess. Learning that my editor was a paid-up member of the National Party rather dented my trust in the unbiased nature of the paper at the time, but it was restored in witnessing the combined efforts of journalists and subeditors from across the political spectrum to ensure it presented a neutral view.

Working in the UK woke me up to the concept of politically-aligned media. And while a little strange initially, at least I knew I was getting conservative-biased views when I read The Telegraph and socialist spin from The Daily Mirror. This division still exists and is more prevalent than ever. But we all know it, so we adjust our filter and reasoning powers in response.

Fast forward to 2016 and the introduction of the term ‘fake news’ (Thank you, Donald Trump). Although, rather than lies, the term is generally used to describe facts and figures you don’t agree with. Unfortunately, it also feeds the sense that once trusted (albeit biased) media can no longer be relied upon to tell the truth about anything – certainly not important social and political issues, let alone ‘man bites dog’ stories.

If you feel you can’t trust the news (and I’m not saying that you can’t in New Zealand) then here’s hoping that you can trust the people, the brands and the organisations you interact with.

The last five years has seen the rapid growth of another source of information – thanks to the internet and its various platforms and the growing distrust of the established channels – namely the rise of influencers (bloggers, celebrities, Instagrammers), which has been both exciting and challenging. As an industry we’re still working out which ones are actually influential, while consumers are busy sorting those who are trustworthy and authentic from the ‘friend-buyers’ and fakes.

Today, trusted brands, trusted advisors and trusted sources are more important than ever. The catch is that to become a trusted brand, you must first earn that trust and this can only be done through consistency: by demonstrating trustworthy behaviour time and again.

Consistency should be paramount for brands – but this doesn’t mean never changing, or being inflexible. It means delivering as your customers expect you to. If there are changes afoot, then communicate those clearly, transparently, honestly.

As the mistrust of traditional channels of communication builds, our role as communicators must be to ensure the brands, people and organisations we represent are seen to deliver on their promises. Our job is to keep their communications honest. Given that PR people have so often been labelled ‘paid liars’ we owe it to ourselves to guide our clients to prove the opposite.