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Let’s take a wild stab at a generalization: Success at building a business or growing a non-profit or making a community more livable depends a lot on trust.

You have to keep delivering what you promise to get people to keep buying what you’re selling.

Simple concept, no? But earning and maintaining trust gets a lot harder when two conditions prevail — when it takes a lot of time to deliver on promises and when the folks doing the promising are strangers. We’ll put up with occasional screw-ups when we’re dealing with people or organizations we know well. But combine a time lag between what’s expected and what arrives with having to deal with folks who, you know, aren’t like us — that’s when the bar for investing trust is set much higher.

The evidence for trust erosion is all around us, most notably in the politics of polarization in Washington, in state capitals and even in many municipalities where elected officials should be well known enough to have earned some slack. It’s also a big issue in business, where technological disruption and erratic economic trends are complicating relationships between companies and consumers.

When it comes to trust repair, business leaders should have an easier time than politicians. Their promises are more narrowly defined; their strategies are often built around shrinking time between sale and delivery; and they have built-in systems for constantly measuring outcomes (earnings). Yet, CEOs fret as much about credibility as politicians. And for good reason.

The international Edelman PR firm does an annual “Global Trust Barometer” built around world-wide surveys of trust in institutions. The firm’s 2015 report spots “an evaporation of trust across all institutions . . For the first time, two-thirds of the 27 nations we survey (general population data) fall into the ‘distruster’ category.”

Three out of the four measured categories (business, government, media and non-profits) experienced slight declines over 2014, with trust in government — primarily in developing countries experiencing economic growth — registering a slight uptick.

What struck Edelman as particularly worrying was the decline in trust in official company spokespeople, like CEOS, and the rise in credibility of “a person like yourself.”

Click for larger view.

Click for larger view.

This observation, I think, speaks to a general devolution in potential networks of trust from those made up of strangers to those made up entirely of people who share similar perspectives. A tribe, in other words.

Same deal with political polarization in the U.S. “When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds,” said authors of a 2014 Pew Research Center study. “There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals . .”

This is a huge problem. Governments must serve all manners of interests. If we can’t grow our trust networks beyond our tribal identities, we can forget about working together successfully as communities and regions, let alone as a nation of citizens or in coalitions of nations in common causes.

Edelman, like a lot of folks in politics and the media, suggests the solutions are mostly about telling a better story, about reaching out to those who just don’t get it and providing evidence to melt their suspicions. There’s even a handy formula:

2015 Trust Brochure.indd

Here’s how Edelman translates the symbols:

Trusted Innovation is the sum of Discovery, plus Benefit, plus Integrity, exponentially powered by Engagement.

Discovery refers to the innovation that business is uniquely positioned to advance. To Discovery, business brings an unrivaled agility and nimbleness, a multi-stakeholder and often global view, founded in specific expertise no other institution can bring.

Benefit is twofold—both personal and societal, referring to the trust that is placed in companies to address individual needs or challenges, as well as larger, macro-issues facing society.

Integrity is the sum of attributes which build trust in any company, chiefly having ethical business practices, managing risk, treating employees well and operating responsibly as a good corporate citizen.

Engagement is the multiplier factor and refers to the transparency and third-party validation that is integral to innovation.

And here’s a major chunk of Edelman’s idea of engagement:

Realizing that new developments do not speak for themselves, enterprises must actively engage a broad range of stakeholders to facilitate greater understanding through stories that reach and touch their audiences. Business must explain benefits completely, elucidate the technology behind the innovations and communicate its ethical practices in bringing those discoveries to market.

Lots of telling. Doing? Not so much.

To be fair, buried in the PR language are important points about walking the talk. Attributes like integrity surely require following through on what you promise. But the over-emphasis on getting the story straight strictly from the storyteller’s point of view obscures the most fundamental obligation for earning trust:

Understand what your customer needs. Deliver it. Repeat.

Engagement is a means to that two-way understanding, to fully grasping expectations so you can design ways to deliver on those expectations. It’s not the end itself.

In public engagement contexts increasingly complicated by conflicting tribal perspectives, the story you want to tell is the story listeners are prepared to believe. And that requires listening for unifying touchstones that may force you to alter not only the way you tell your story but also the way you do business.

This is complex stuff with major implications for community engagement in difficult times. We’ve talked about this before — here, for instance, and here. And we’ll revisit the topic, exploring strategies for better story listening and storytelling, in future posts.

If you’re attending the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism, April 29-May 2 in Dallas, check out the workshop my PlaceMakers partner Scott Doyon and I will be lead on Wednesday, April 29.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Ben Brown

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