Navigating the post-truth world: How businesses can earn trust

Nick Barron
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Don’t be fooled that facts don’t matter in a post-truth world (Source: Getty)
elcome to the post-truth world.

Society has become tribal and echo-chambers shape the way we see reality. There are few trusted facts, only trusted voices. Who is doing the talking has become more important than the things they say.

For brands that want to earn trust, that sounds like a Catch-22, but companies can find their way into their customers’ circles of trust. Here’s what you need to know:

Be trustworthy

However much you pay a communications consultant, the golden rule is “do the right thing”. A big part of our job is to hold a mirror up to our clients’ messages and policies before the outside world does.

You can only get away with not being trustworthy for so long. Facts find a way to surface. Transparency is inevitable, as David Beckham or Sony will tell you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that facts don’t matter at all in a post-truth world – to your critics, they can be weapons. Customers care what happens under the bonnet of a business and if your deeds don’t match your words, news will spread at the speed of Twitter.

Being trustworthy isn’t enough

Edelman began studying the state of trust in Britain back in 2001. In those days, if you delivered good products or services and didn’t mess up, that was enough to be trusted.

Over the last 17 years, we’ve watched the steady erosion of public trust in traditional authority. Chief executives, professionals, journalists, academics – no one is safe. The public’s default setting when thinking about anyone in power is “what’s their angle?”

To earn trust, you must work hard and re-think how you talk to people. Most corporate communication is polished to a high shine, anxious not to upset anyone and reluctant to admit failure. That’s wrong on every count.

Be like me

As trust in traditional authority has declined, trust in people “like me” has risen. So how can a giant corporation be “like me”?

First, we like the same people.

Find the social influencers that your customers relate to and work with them to tell your stories. Listen to what people are talking about and join in. If you spend too long thinking about what to say, the party will have moved on without you.

Second, we share the same values.

Take a stand on the issues that matter most to your customers to show them that you see the world the same way. When (according to our trust data) 63 per cent of the general public thinks chief executives “cannot relate to people like me”, there is a premium attached to leaders who actually lead. Keeping quiet so as not to upset anyone is counter-productive. As marketing academic Daniel Korschun wrote recently: “though our current political environment is polarised and contentious, most people still find failures of sincerity more troubling than differences of opinion.”

Third, we’re all only human.

The public is suspicious of slickness. We trust off-the-cuff speech more than scripted answers, leaks more than news releases and personal anecdotes more than data. And we’re forgiving, because to err is human. As long as a company is heading in the right direction and trying hard, we don’t expect it to be flawless. We admire the tech sector’s “test-and-learn” culture. We believe that any company that never misses a target didn’t set them high enough in the first place.

It shouldn’t be a revelation, but people like to be treated like human beings. Talk to them about things that matter and help them promote the things that they care about. In other words, the brave new world of post-truth is rather old fashioned.

Nick Barron is managing director of Edelman.

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