Greg Brooks

Building Trust in Communications

By: Greg Brooks | October 30, 2018 | 
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Why Trust MattersThere’s an old sales trope that goes:

Nothing happens until a sale is made.

I’ve always liked that.

It cuts through a lot of the rounding language, corporate speak, and other niceties of modern organizational communication.

It’s universal, too.

Whether you’re saving baby seals or helping a Fortune 50 make its quarterly numbers with a bold announcement, you’re selling something.

But the trope gets it wrong in one big way for communications: the sale is the end, not the beginning, of the process.

In our business? Nothing happens until you establish trust.

That doesn’t mean we can’t keep busy.

There’s always an Insta to update, an infographic to push out, or a half-assed news release that should never have seen the light of day.

That’s amplification, not trust building.

And, too often, it’s like watching some sketchy guy work his way through the bar, hitting on one person after another and another until he’s strip-mined the whole room.

I mean, sure… he might get lucky.

But more likely?

He’s just annoying.

Communications professionals can—and should—do better.

Why Trust Matters: What We Know

So if communications—yes, even for megacorps, your edgy tech startup, or that hot new doggie daycare small-biz you just signed—is about trust, it’s useful to review what we know about the subject.

If you’re reading this in the U.S., the story is simple: Trust is down. Way down.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer—the most authoritative annual study of trust and why trust matters—no country suffered a greater loss in trust regarding major institutions (government, NGOs, media, business) during 2017 than the U.S.

Why trust matters?

Here are some other findings:

  • Globally, more major-market societies are generally distrusting than trusting.
  • In fact, across both well-informed and uninformed swaths of the public within the U.S., you are beating the odds—sometimes by a lot—if you can crack a 50 percent level of trust.
  • Trust in journalism is up but widely divided by political affiliation.
  • Trust in platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is down, particularly in the U.S.

There’s more—a lot more—and all of it should matter to people in our profession.

And if this picture seems bleak, it really isn’t.

In fact, the erosion of trust is key to communication’s ongoing value.

Think about it. Less trust in media also means we need to rely less on that very same media.

Why Trust Matters: It’s All Relative

In the U.S., trust in businesses and NGOs—two groups which, for most of us, cover the majority of clients and employers—is now significantly higher than trust in the media or government, meaning PR in those sectors has a strong base to build from.

And, unlike the often-binary world of old PR—you either got that NYT feature or you didn’t—trust is incremental and relative.

Your clients and employers don’t have to be absolutely trusted. They need only be trusted more than their competitors.

What Trust-centric Messaging Looks Like

Step away from the features-and-benefits focus of marketing and even the sound-like-journalism pseudo-reporting of most traditional communications.

What does good messaging look like?

Specifically, what does it look like if you’re trying to build trust?

Here’s why trust matters, and where some truths from good political communication (spoiler: most political communication—on both sides—is not that good) can be helpful.

  • We know trust requires an affirmative decision.
    • You’re going to have to change someone’s mind about something, even if that something is tiny and trivial.
  • We know trust is usually social.
    • No matter what your weird belief or preference, chances are you seek out others who feel the same.
    • And if not about that specific thing, then about attitudes and values tied to it (more on this below).
  • We know trust begets more trust. 
    • You have to get inside the house before they’ll have coffee with you, and you have to have coffee before you can hold hands.

Why trust matters?

The heavy lift is: establish it in a way likely to resonate with the audience’s social ecosystem and, ultimately, move them to a decision—even if that decision is just trusting you enough to listen some more.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right?

Well, it’s simpler than it sounds.

You have to know your audiences’ values, frame your messages inside them, and you’ll both build trust and control the dialogue around whatever you’re promoting.

Do that one thing, and you have to screw up or be massively outspent to be ineffective.

Opinions, Attitudes, and Values: A Framework

I mention values—a word that’s been devalued (no pun intended) to the point of ridicule.

Today, we have family values, community values, corporate values, and values too low to advertise.

But when anchoring your messages in order to build trust, values are a specific thing for the foundation of a three-level pyramid guiding people in decision-making.

Opinions

On top are opinions, the myriad thoughts and considerations people have about any subject.

  • Opinions are constantly changing. And they are subject to change as new information happens.
  • I like my writing. That’s an opinion.
  • You may not like it. That’s also an opinion.
  • When talking about getting people to make affirmative decisions in the course of trust-building, most of the time we’re really talking about changing opinions.

Attitudes

The next level of thought is attitudes.

  • More strongly held than opinions, the attitude level is where the debate about big-picture issues stalls in policymaking and the press.
  • Attitudes are less subject to change than opinions. But they can evolve by providing credible arguments which appeal to deeper values.
  • Continuing the self-indulgent metaphor: Attitudes relating to this piece could be the concepts of professional development or perhaps business growth.
  • Attitudes typically change once you first change multiple opinions, all of which are grounded in values your audience relates to. The best examples of these efforts typically are medium- and long-term campaigns to change behavior.

Values

Forming the bedrock of opinions and attitudes are values.

  • These are born of our hopes, needs, fears, and dreams.
  • Values are instilled in us at an early age.
  • Typically, these remain unchanged except through the most major of events, personal upheavals or societal change.
  • Because they are basic to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we share values across broad socioeconomic ranges.
  • The values relating to this Spin Sucks feature? Hopefully, knowledge and growth.
  • An even better example: The vague, but widely shared, value of freedom. The most rabid political partisans would likely say they hold this value, even though they might disagree about the attitudes and opinions growing out of that value.

Why Trust Matters: Power

We could debate opinions about my writing and probably even attitudes about it.

But, you’ll have a tougher time finding people from the anti-knowledge and anti-growth lobbies.

That’s a characteristic of values.

Because they are so basic, they tend to have wide acceptance. And that’s what makes them powerful when you’re trying to build trust.

If the audience you’re messaging believes you share at least some of its values, that gets you in the door with strangers the first time you’re communicating.

It keeps disagreements, competition, and opposition contained.

And, if a crisis strikes, it is the primary wellspring from which you can draw out the trust necessary to fix things.

So if values-based communications strategies work so well, why don’t we use them more?

One reason is otherwise well-intentioned people can’t help but muck with a stated value.

They try to add things to it, refine it to make it appeal to a particular group or otherwise wordsmith it to death.

I’ve seen simple, one- or two-word values clearly identified through research turn into paragraph-long statements by stakeholder committees or other privileged participants.

That’s a shame!

A good rule of thumb is if your value needs a sentence (or a paragraph!) to explain, then it isn’t broad enough.

Hitch Your Wagon to Audience Values

Figuring out target audience values isn’t hard and doesn’t take much time or money.

If done correctly, focus groups or audience interviews can get you most of the way there.

And the good news is: when you hitch your wagon to people’s bedrock values, you’ll know right away whether you’re on track or not. The audience will let you know.

A simple exercise: choose one of your communication plans and map values and attitudes to each of your major messaging points.

Then ask yourself:

  • How do I know my audience shares these values and attitudes?
    • Get it wrong, and you’re seen as inauthentic at best, counter-value at worst.
  • How many values and attitudes have I listed?
    • Too many means you’re defining your values or messages too narrowly.
    • Remember, people are apt to broadly share a reasonably small number of values. Those are the ones you should anchor to.
    • A great communications campaign probably anchors to no more than two or three values across all message points.
  • How deeply do the values I’ve identified flow through my plan?
    • Think a one-off social post can’t be tied to values-based, trust-building communication? Think again.
    • The biggest challenge is usually convincing detail-centric clients or colleagues that trust is the larger, longer-term prize.

Why Trust Matters: Who Owns It?

Today, everyone can beg, borrow, buy or steal a megaphone.

But if we’re doing our jobs right?

Communications professionals own the creation, maintenance, and growth of trust.

For all but the most transactional and commodified clients, that’s where the challenge starts.

That’s where our value creation starts, and where we can thrive amid a world of tightening budgets.

Photo by Anton Murygin on Unsplash

About Greg Brooks


For nearly three decades, Greg Brooks has advanced complex ideas, policies and technical issues to the press, the public, elected officials and stakeholder groups. A former journalist, Brooks' work ranges from outreach explaining small-town recycling ordinances to media and legislative relations for landmark Supreme Court cases. His practice, West Third Group, is based in Las Vegas and he works throughout the U.S.

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