Restoring trust through open communications

scrabbleDo you trust banks’ press releases? When a Fortune 500 CEO gives a talk about the company’s outlook, is he/she believable? Do you think organizations’ claims about being sustainable and environmentally friendly are really accurate? Do you feel that your superiors and senior leadership are honest?

If you reflect public opinion, odds are your answers to all these questions are an emphatic no. Edelman’s 2013 Trust Barometer released on January 22 revealed that less than one-fifth of the general public believes business leaders and government officials will be honest when dealing with a difficult issue. The trend is rather universal as the global public relations firm surveyed over 31,000 individuals in 26 global markets.

As a communicator, I ask myself what our profession can do to help restore the trust of different publics. After all, we as communicators and public relations professionals are responsible for managing the reputations of the organizations we represent. While visiting Switzerland, I discussed this topic with communications expert and executive coach Susan Goldsworthy, the former Vice President of Communications at Tetra Pak and the co-author of a new book entitled Care to Dare.

The research and the contents of the book delve into this subject. She believes that it starts at the top, and often times CEOs and senior leaders are not trained in communications and fail to understand the consequences of different words and actions. Our system itself doesn’t facilitate effective communications. Ingrained early on in life through our educational system, we are led to believe that authority figures (teachers) dictate what are the right and wrong answers.

“The old system emphasizes the importance of not showing weakness,” explains Goldsworthy. “But actual research reveals being human and showing empathy brings about engagement, while the leader who ‘has all the right answers’ may actually repel others.”

Goldsworthy talks about the importance of leaders showing care (a sense of belonging) while also demonstrating dare (emphasizing a need to achieve). This isn’t easy when all too often the board dictates orders to the CEO and then he / she cascades this ultimatum down to managers and throughout the organization. “If there is a threat, there is no trust. Managers won’t take risks and this stifles creativity and innovation.” Instead of top-down cascades, we should think of communications in waves, flowing back and forth, across all parts of the organization, says Goldsworthy.

As we are all unaware of blind spots, Goldsworthy notes that feedback, dialogue and the ability to listen our critical. “To use a sporting analogy, think about if Roger Federer is making tactical mistakes in a match during Wimbledon. The coach will tell him the mistakes right away rather than waiting six months. Yet in organizations, we rely on once a year feedback in the form of annual evaluations.”

It is my belief that communications professionals can play a role in being that coach when it comes to regularly advising senior leadership on communications matters negatively impacting the organization. All too often, we place emphasis on training senior leadership for media interviews and communications to external audiences. While we indeed need to evolve in how we support senior leadership in external communication in our social media age to help restore trust, we also need to consider how we can advise leaders in some of these subtler forms of internal communications.

This is no easy task. Providing senior leadership (the bosses) with honest feedback about how different communications may be coming off negatively requires diplomacy, tact, confidence and trust. It certainly isn’t a comfortable conversation. But we need to find a way to get to this point.  It is in the organization and leader’s best interest. Such guidance and feedback could go a long ways towards restoring internal trust, which is a step in the right direction towards re-gaining the public’s confidence. As the Edelman Barometer reveals, we have a long ways to go.