Are you a trustworthy business? Then say it!

October 12th, 2009 by Jon Clements

Update: Efforts to rebuild trust are clearly striking a chord with businesses by the look of this PR Week case study.

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.

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

8 Responses to “Are you a trustworthy business? Then say it!”

  1. Chris Bonnett Says:

    this is interesting, we’ve just started on twitter as an extra channel to engage with customers, and assist in making them feel more valued and involved when they make a purchase. Regards social networking/bulleting boards etc, we had a spate of attacks on our credability, by we suspect competitors – we are in dark times economically, and some people can get despirate at times…. They’ve stopped now, and the website pulled the comments after we pointed out that none could be substantiated…. I suspect the general feeling of the man on the street is that the people in corporations still have their jobs and top pay…. where they may be less fortunate.

  2. Jon Clements Says:

    Thanks for your comment.
    Clearly, you resolved your problems with the misinformation being posted about your company online. In theory, if you are actively participating in an online community – and have shown yourself to be open, transparent and willing to engage with positive and negative discussions about your business – then you should have built sufficient good will for the community to come to your defence (exactly as it would be in the offline world).
    Within social networks, if dirty tricks are afoot, they are likely to be exposed before long.

  3. Dom Burch Says:

    Jon – you’re bang on the money. People have lost faith in many traditional institutions, including big businesses. To win that trust back we all have to be far more transparent in how we do business, involve customers more in shaping the things we sell and reward them for their input and ideas. That’s why we recently launched a number of new initiatives that symbolise how we are going to fundamentally change the relationship with our customers, involving them in every aspect of what we do. Our CEO gave a speech on 1st Oct titled Democratic Consumerism, and launched Chosen By You (products selected by customers), our new buyer blog Aisle Spy ( and Bright Ideas which will give customers 5% of any savings we make following a suggestion that we implement. We’ve also introduced webcams, and plan to activate our online panel of 18,000 customers – turning them into a community that participate in running the business. Small steps, but we think we are certainly on the right road to rebuilding trust.

  4. Jon Clements Says:

    It’s always a risk when an organisation throws open the doors that are usually shut to the outside world. But I think there’s some truth in the idea that only the guilty have something to hide! Seriously, it looks like Asda is taking rather large steps in transparency and engagement.

    “Crowdsourcing” ideas from customers offers the chance to have a more direct relationship in developing new products and services as opposed to the focus group approach, which is still about taking your idea to the customer rather than asking them, simply, what they want.

  5. Jon Says:

    And another thing about focus groups. According to @GamePlanHayde (via @chris brogan) “the focus group is dead”.

    Why? Again, Chris Brogan summarises:

  6. Chris Bonnett Says:


    you are right, but some of these websites and their participants will not engage in debate or post positive comments where they are all vetted first. . . . . normally we notice adverts for the competitors right next to ‘independent complaints’ about us! ho hum!

  7. » Top 250 Blog Posts – Advertising, Marketing, Social Media, Digital Spotlight Ideas Says:

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