If you’ve seen the headlines, you will have read that the only institution that is universally trusted around the globe right now is business. Yes, business. We’ve come a long way in the last decades: While business was once blamed for rising inequity, it’s now the only entity we trust to create social and economic change.
Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer sheds light on this trend, as does Pew Research Center’s report on the decline of Americans’ trust in medical scientists since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other groups on the trust decline include scientists in general, the military, police officers, public school principals, religious leaders, journalists and elected officials. The only group not experiencing a precipitous drop (although some trust has fallen, according to Pew) – business leaders.
Spurred on by a lack of faith in societal institutions, continued economic uncertainty, the pervasiveness of disinformation, rising financial divides and a general failure of leadership (whether real or perceived) brings us to a moment that sounds a bit dystopian on paper. Last year around this time, we wrote about the polarized world we were living in; in fact, we described it as on a scale previously “not seen in our lifetimes.” While some of our deep societal divides may persist, it seems we have all found a new champion to rally around, and surprisingly, it’s the corporate CEO.
While we recognize that trend lines show businesses have been gaining in trust over the past decade, to take the top spot as the most trusted institution and role on the planet, across geographical and cultural lines, means business leaders are now at the apex of massive opportunity and incredible obligation.
Consumers are observant, perceptive and attuned to the realities of leadership failures in other sectors, which has outsized their expectations on business to solve modern challenges. That they place their trust in brands is an indicator of how low trust has fallen elsewhere. It is perhaps this openness about the relationship – product and service provider to buyer – that makes business so trustworthy right now. A business’s interest is clear, and we welcome clarity in a world full of mis and disinformation, where we perceive everything to be filtered through a political or social lens.
We know what businesses want, and we are willing to buy if companies will step up and propel social change in addition to sales. Put simply, we will happily contribute to a company’s bottom line if we get more than just the transaction in return.
This is where strategic communication becomes so much more than a “nice to have.” With consumer sentiment moving from respect for brands that speak out about social, environmental and economic change to the expectation of leadership taking a stand, well-prepared communications have become a critical component of a company’s well-being and ultimate survival. We have three key takeaways to share on this matter.
1. It is now a risk to sit on the sidelines of hard discussions happening in your brand space
Companies must identify issues that intersect with their corporate values and brand positioning. They should know their stance before the conversation goes mainstream and be ready to announce both their philosophical position and related actions, moving the matter forward to a satisfactory resolution for its customers. If a conversation is happening in a space the company occupies, is adjacent to, or is trending broadly in the world, leaders should be prepared to address it. The stakes of earned trust are high and growing.
2. Young internal audiences trust who you say you are – prove them right
Gen Z now accounts for nearly a quarter of the workforce, and their standards for ethics and transparency are high. Possibility-based thinkers rather than skeptics, they are willing to trust who companies and leaders say they are, and fulfilling this trust will be paramount to attracting and retaining talent in this age group. Take this opportunity to proactively communicate how you meet these standards, then be ready to back them up with continued action.
3. ESG is your new MO, if it wasn’t already
You don’t have to become a certified B Corp, although it wouldn’t hurt, but Environmental, Social and Governance practices (policies, procedures and metrics) are key to maintaining trust in your company operations. Your company’s commitment to ESG through publicized energy or waste reduction goals, monetary contributions toward causes, internal policies for a family-friendly work environment, or other activities like annual volunteer hours can go a long way in entrenching this belief among customers.
For more thoughts on how to accomplish this monumental task of holding and growing trust for your brand, I recommend my recent blog on what I learned at the world’s largest gathering of public relations professionals; I especially recommend the section titled “Put your money where your mouth is.”
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If you need help working through communications strategy, media engagement or audience engagement during this time, give us a call. We’re happy to talk strategy and help.