What would happen if you trusted no one, and no one trusted you? The short answer is: nothing. Nothing would ever get done. Society as we currently experience it would cease almost all activity. And it seems that the notion of trust (or lack thereof) is becoming an increasingly important issue in business and society. The need for us to be able to trust people and organizations is arguably as important as our need to breathe.
When you got up in the morning you couldn’t eat your regular cereal – what if they were lying about what they put in it? What if the best before date is a lie? You would never get behind the wheel of a car – how could you know that the mechanic who serviced your car yesterday didn’t do something seriously wrong, either intentionally or inadvertently? And fly on an airplane? Never. And when you heard the words, “I love you,” from your spouse, you would be cynical about them – clearly having a potential effect on your relationship.
As Kieron O’Hara puts it in his book Trust: From Socrates to Spin,
Any plan that involves two or more people working together, from cooking Christmas dinner to assembling a bookcase to building an oil rig, demands mutual trust in each other’s capacity and inclination to do the job.
And what if no one trusted your organization? Clearly, it could not achieve its mission. Your organization’s ability to build trust is the cornerstone of its relationships with its important publics – from your employees at every level who are your ambassadors to the world, to your most geographically distant supplier, client or investor. The question is: Can you be trusted?
The Concept of Social Capital
Although it seems to have become a buzz concept of our modern times, the concept of social capital has been around for a long time (the 19th century to be somewhat precise) and the definitions are many. And the relationship between this important organizational asset and the concept of trust is clear. Here is a sampling of definitions of social capital:
- “The process and conditions of social networking among people and organizations that lead to accomplishing a goal of mutual social benefit, usually characterized by trust, cooperation, involvement in the community, and sharing.” (originally from the Centers for Disease Control in the US)
- “The value of social networks that people can draw on to solve common problems. The benefits of social capital flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks.” http://www.visionpdx.com/reading/visiondocument/glossary.html
- “The networks of relationships among persons, firms, and institutions in a society, together with associated norms of behavior, trust, cooperation, etc., that enable a society to function effectively.” http://www-personal.umich.edu/~alandear/glossary/s.html
As you read through these definitions, you could easily argue that the public relations function is head and shoulders above all other organizational functions when it comes to developing and maintaining that social capital. Thus, it seems important as PR practitioners to take a closer look at what constitutes social capital, the most important characteristic of which seems to be trust. And trust is largely related to your reputation which is tied into your ethical behavior.
Organizational Credibility & Trust
The extent to which an organization is considered to be credible is an important part of the social capital that it brings to its relationships with its publics. According to Dr. Sherry Devereaux Ferguson, Professor of Communication at the University of Ottawa (in her book Communication Planning) , the two most important factors in determining or predicting credibility of sources are trustworthiness and expertise. When it comes to the messages that you develop and distribute to your publics, you are the source. How can your trustworthiness be perceived?
“…trustworthiness…relates to the extent to which a source is perceived as sincere, safe …honest, hard-working, supportive of laudable causes…”
…and indeed, Ferguson suggests that trustworthiness may, in fact be the most important factor when it comes to others’ perceptions of our credibility.
Every message that emanates from an organization, whether as a result of words or deeds, either contributes to or detracts from its credibility rating with its publics. If you cannot be trusted, your credibility suffers, and with it the likelihood that you will be able to achieve your goals.
Enhancing Your Trustworthiness
If an organization expects to be trusted, it needs to do several things (and it needs to be perceived to be doing so as well). The following are suggestions about how to do this:
- Be as honest as you possibly can while at the same time respecting the privacy of your employees, customers or clients and other important publics. Transparency as a relative of honesty is extremely important these days as well. If you felt that another person was being dishonest with you, would you trust that person?
- Keep your commitments. When you say that you will do something, never fail to follow-through. When people keep their word, their reputation as being highly trustworthy begins to take shape.
- Be accountable for your actions. Avoid passing the buck. Take responsibility for everything, no matter how peripheral it may seem at the time, for anything that you truly are responsible for. At the same time, even when you are not truly responsible, avoid blame, focusing on solutions instead.
- Support your community in any way you can, ensuring that those “laudable” community causes are congruent with your mission and the needs and desires of your employees.
…and it might be worth keeping in mind an old saying about trust:
Trust is like an eraser. It gets smaller after every mistake.