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Friday, 16 October 2009

Friday Guest Blog: Are you a trustworthy business? Then say it!

by Jon Clements, Partner, Staniforth

If business leaders breathed a sigh of relief that they weren’t politicians when the UK Parliamentary expenses scandal blew up, they should beware of feeling smug.

A recent poll by Ipsos Mori revealed the public’s distrust is not reserved for our political class, but business people too.
Net trust in business leaders - according to the poll - has fallen to its lowest level since the research began in 1983 and placed business fourth from bottom among 16 groups in terms of truthfulness.

In that context, it seems strange that the leading business organisations were unwilling to mount a defence of commerce and industry, with the Confederation of British Industry telling The Observer: ”We are just not going to comment on the survey” and the Institute of Directors not replying. Why the reluctance to fight business’ corner? After all, not everyone in business works in banking.

In last week’s conference staged by the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) entitled, “Emerging from recession”, the issue of trust was very much on the agenda, with the BBC’s director of communications, Ed Williams, running a session on rebuilding trust and posing the question: “How do we restore public confidence in organisations and rebuild reputations to emerge stronger in the future?”

Among the Tweets from the conference quoting Williams, helpfully supplied by Orchid Communications, the Mori poll’s point was reiterated: people trust companies a lot less than they did a year ago. And, thanks to David McNamara’s tweet, we learned what Ed Williams feels is the best strategy to deliver trust: ”openness”.

The credit crunch, the banking crisis, the fall of Lehmann Bros and Fred Goodwin’s pension package have done little to warm the cockles of the public’s heart towards business people. And that’s terribly sad, as those enterprises which go about their business providing employment, behaving ethically and responsibly, creating things of value for their customers and occupying a meaningful place in their communities have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet they are lumped in with the rest of them in a skip marked “untrustworthy”.

And that’s where business needs to come out fighting. If public opinion has decided business is unprincipled, it’s not going to change on its own; it needs to be persuaded otherwise. And that’s where openness comes in. It’s not about revealing your competitive advantage or the details of boardroom arguments, but being able to communicate effectively across the landscape of what you do and why it’s important. That means recognising it’s not always possible to tell a happy story each time your organisation speaks. In fact, it could include having to apologise when your business has messed up. But being proud and vocal about your achievements - while maintaining transparency about your shortcomings - is all part of building trust.

A more recent, and critical, development in this problem for business is the advent of social media: online, peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge, information and opinions about a myriad of subjects. And that could include your business. Chris Brogan, a veteran of using social media for business, warns how communications around a company are no longer within the organisation’s exclusive control. But social media presents an opportunity also, to show greater transparency and enhance reputation and trust.

I’m pleased to say Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce has been willing to participate in the debate and its deputy chief executive, Chris Fletcher, told PR Media Blog:

“It’s natural for the public to be suspicious of large corporations and this can be a positive thing in ensuring that businesses are held accountable for their actions. However, I think a big problem is that business leaders equate to bankers in most people’s minds and this carries connotations of huge profits, big bonuses and inflated salaries. Actually, the vast majority of UK businesses are small to medium and are struggling in the current climate. These businesses play a huge part in driving us out of a recession and need all the support they can get. It’s the Chamber’s role to provide this support and to fight their corner by taking their concerns to the right people for action.”

Whether the present government succeeds in winning a further term in office, or not, it is right to ensure that public trust in politicians of any hue is clawed back by drawing a line under the expenses debacle. And even MPs unscathed by the scandal will have to justify their party political peers on the doorsteps come election time.

And the same goes for business. You might be doing great things and be great people; just don’t assume that anyone beyond the factory gates or the web portal believes you are.

Jon writes regularly for Staniforth's PR Media Blog exploring the ever-changing relationship between media and public relations. Click here to view the blog.

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