Public trust: lost, but not for all time

June 04 2018

Hugo Hodge


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By Katherine Teh-White

Re-establishing public trust in our institutions is now critical and, for corporate Australia, their three basic strategies are all set to fail.

First, the “feel good” advertising campaign to communicate how much the company contributes. It’s a strategy that has generated a small bump in approval for some, but it costs tens of millions and it isn’t sustainable beyond the campaign. A particularly hilarious and unsuccessful example of this is the Minerals Council of Australia’s 2015 ad campaign to heroise a lump of coal: Coal. It’s an amazing thing which is still available on its own website.

Second, the “fight back” campaign to attack their critics. While the strategy gets a “hurrah” from its supporters, in effect, it actually reduces public trust. The recent announcement by the Business Council of Australia to go head-to-head with the ALP and Australia’s unions over who really represents the workers, appears to be heading in this direction.

Third, the “virtue signalling” strategy which seeks to align the company’s values to society’s values on issues not related to his/her business. While it can boost employee morale it doesn’t address business trust. Google ‘Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad’ to understand how a soft drink can help solve all the world’s problems and sooth tensions at protest marches.

Given these approaches demonstrably fail to recover or sustain trust, it’s time for boards to demand a strategy that can deliver it.

Rebuilding trust requires more than a new ad or campaign logo. The solution requires a business, presumably through board direction, to develop real solutions to real dilemmas and build resilience and future-mindedness to deal with the expected and unexpected. This means abandoning the old way of communicating “out” to tell stakeholders where you stand, and instead communicating “with” and engaging stakeholders and the community-at-large. Understanding the motivations and arguments of your worst critics and the role of societal values is key to shaping responses that work to reduce anger, support transparency and honesty, and build trust.

With a more savvy public and heightened (social) media communication, the best, perhaps only, approach is now to let the public be the back-seat driver in the journey through atonement. To do this organisations need to develop leaders who know how to solve problems in a commercial way that earns trust; systems that ‘red-flag’ issues so there can be proactive management of risks, and society to engage with resolving the critical issues facing the company

The Board’s role is to ensure the strategy achieves social licence and generates a culture capable of continually building trust.

The good news is that the type of disruption that is currently affecting many businesses can help them become more resilient and able to innovate in ways that will future-proof against future challenges.

Katherine Teh-White is the founder and managing director of management consultancy firm Futureye.

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