If something smells bad, walk away

1 February 2011
Trust me, I’m a journalist turned PR man. That’s not a very convincing start, is it? As we move further into 2011 the crisis of trust in business (and in the media) is not getting any less serious. On the contrary. According to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, published towards the end of January, the media industries have sunk even lower this year, right down there with banking and other financial services as the least trusted commercial players of all. And this data was gathered before the recent departure of the prime minister’s director of communications, Andy Coulson. At the time of writing the scandal over phone hacking and the media’s involvement showed no signs of coming to an end. The BBC’s business editor Robert Peston commented that “this has all the potential for the newspaper industry to turn into its version of the MPs’ expenses scandal”. Trust is tricky, elusive stuff. As an abstraction it is hard to pin down. It takes a long time to build but can be lost in an instant. And – as BP and other businesses have found – a crisis is a bad time to start trying to improve the levels of trust a community has in you. The former Bishop of Stepney, Stephen Oliver, tells a similar story about the 7/7 bombings in London. In the immediate aftermath of those shocking attacks it was difficult, at first, for him to reach out to members of the Muslim community in his diocese. The deep-rooted connections needed for trust to flourish were not in place. This reminds me of the old gardener’s joke about growing asparagus. You open up the book and the first line of instructions reads: “Dig a trench, three years ago.”So what can we do to increase the levels of trust in business? First: straight dealing. People have long memories. Why do business with people who let you down or don’t do what they say they are going to do? Late payment is more than a mere irritation in this regard. It says that you are fundamentally slippery, always looking for favours or trying to cut corners, but are not prepared to do the right thing yourself. So cut out late payment in 2011. Sure times are hard, but don’t take it out on suppliers. They will have long memories too. Next: transparency. In a low‑trust era, showing that you have nothing up your sleeve, and no hidden agendas, could do a lot to start winning back trust. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it is time to say what you mean and mean what you say – and then live up to the commitments that you make. An easy thing to say, but hard to do in the real world. Finally: police your relationships. Be merciless on those who forfeit your trust. Display zero tolerance for dodgy behaviour. Consistency is a virtue, and means that colleagues have less to remember in their day-to-day dealings. If something smells bad, walk away. That’s all you have to do. And setting a clear and firm example will boost your corporate reputation too. Time wasters will drift away. It will be a long haul getting back to a world where trust returns to healthier levels. But it can be done. The key thing for all of us to do is to start behaving better. Right now.
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