The New Trust Environment – Opportunities and a Shakeup to Come

Building Trust is now integral to business strategy. Five things you need to know about building trust from former spokesperson and communications strategist for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Now that “Building Trust” is integral to business strategy, people who think about reputation and image and the companies that hire them are in for a wild and sometimes unsettling ride.    Not everyone is going to survive.

Contrary to the popular image, effective long-term PR has always been about building trust and brokering trust-based relationships.  The best PR people know this.  And the best agency heads make sure their people do too.  

In today’s shifting media environment, where everyone has a voice, the real value to a company of great PR counsel is going to be helping companies navigate through the global trust environment in authentic and compelling ways.  This means helping them build productive relationships all along the stakeholder spectrum – from customers, employees, partners, and investors to watchdogs, media, regulators, and even competitors.   And all of this is going to happen in a climate of much greater scrutiny and transparency.

First, a bit about my vantage point:   I’m a journalism graduate and former marketing executive who’s worked over decades with multiple PR agencies and media in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds.   I’ve been CMO for two successful tech startups and served as a senior communications strategist and chief spokesperson for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Here are five things I see:

1)      The days when PR practitioners and global PR agencies could help companies cover up or even commit egregious acts are coming to a quick close.  I once sat, stunned, in a room where a PR firm that was pitching for my company’s business bragged about their work preparing tobacco executives for congressional testimony.  Though suspicions were high, it took years for their testimony to be proven untrue. Today, we have Wendell  Potter, the former CIGNA communications exec, who blogs regularly and has appeared on media outlets from Bill Moyers and Bill Maher, telling everyone about what it looks like from the inside when companies say one thing to the world and something different inside.  Wendell Potter is the new face of the corporate whistleblower – informed, credentialed, and with an instant link to the outside world.  Soon, every global company will understand that for good and bad, from now on, potential Wendell Potters are everywhere.  The only thing that will keep them on your side is making sure that your company operates in a way that is transparent and credible.

2)      Increasingly, journalists are going to play a role as trust arbitrators to broader audiences.  A few years ago, many journalists still believed that their most valuable role was to get the story from one side and then the other and leave it for viewers and readers to settle on a truth that lay somewhere in the middle.  This meant that the side that made the most outrageous and erroneous claims had an advantage leading to a “false middle.” Today, having learned from the debate on global warming and the current financial meltdown, journalists increasingly will see their role as helping to find truth – and that means supporting and lending credibility to people who – in their judgment – speak honestly and with the evidence to back it up. 

3)      Business will be seen as a powerful driver of global social change. Tolerance here in the US got a huge boost when businesspeople learned that smart ideas and hard work transcend barriers of race, religion, class, sex, or dress.   Moving forward,  global business will be expected to play a larger and more positive role in bringing about social change on a huge array of complex social issues, including gender and religious discrimination.  And that means people who think about reputation and image will have to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between regional culture and global politics. 

4)      People and organization who can serve as honest trust brokers to help connect companies with people and organizations to achieve positive global change will be the new reputation experts.   Wild swings in the regulatory environment are bad for business.   Business needs predictability in order to make long term plans and people and their governments want accountability for negative consequences of business behavior.  Everyone, including media, is paying closer attention to connected and communicative watchdogs.   In this environment, the new trust brokers are people and organizations who can facilitate trust in and out of the spotlight.  This means that people and agencies who can serve as honest brokers to build productive relationships between activist groups, NGOs, scientists, potential regulators and business under watchful eyes and in ways that can help smooth out otherwise abrupt regulatory shifts will become the most valued trust experts.

5)      Trust advisors and PR agencies are going to be held accountable for their client lists.  When trust gets broken, it’s not just the clients who are going to suffer – it’s the people who vouch for them too.  A PR firm isn’t a law firm, and not everyone is entitled to a PR defense.  Watchdogs, including media, will increasingly hold PR people accountable for violations of trust– which means businesses who care about trust will too.

Harrington is a business strategist and innovation communications specialist for people, companies, and organizations that want to make a positive contribution to global society. She’s been a CMO for two successful startups (Valve, Picnik) and previously served as a senior communications strategist and spokesperson for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.