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Trust by truth

Jack de Vries
Board Director
Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Trust by truth

There’s an on old expression that always rings true: “Honesty is the best policy.” For people, brands, and companies, trust is determined by truth and honesty. In 2006, when I organized Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s election campaign against the hugely popular challenger Wouter Bos (whose party had recently won 60 seats in the local elections), it seemed I was faced with an impossible task. Yet, Prime Minister Balkenende won. Was he flashier, hipper or warmer? No, it came down to one key question: "Who seems more honest and trustworthy?"

But that was 2006. A lot has changed since then, not least in our profession. However, it is still my conviction that reputational damage and attacks on one’s image can best be countered by using honesty and facts. Today, the real challenges lie in how to reach people with these facts, now that algorithms are increasingly determining what people hear and get to read.

The stakes surrounding this challenges are high, for countries no less than for corporations.  If the Netherlands’ working classes lose confidence in the political establishment’s ability to provide prosperity and security, we will not be able to rein in the more dangerous excesses of populism. All certainties of the past have disappeared – in politics, business, and everywhere in between.

To understand where the concept of trust is headed, we must first understand how it has come to evolve in the Netherlands over time. If we map what are traditionally the most important elements of Dutch society – church, government, business, and the citizens themselves – in four quadrants based on power and authority, we can see how the balance has shifted.

Once upon a time, the church found itself as the strongest segment of power and authority. However, in the 1960s and 1970s we saw shifts toward government power through secularization and emancipation. We began thinking of the Netherlands in terms of “the makeable society.” These were years in which much good was realized in areas such as social security, education, and health care.

Then, in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond, the business community captured an ever-larger share of power and trust. No-nonsense policies, liberalization, market forces, and outsourcing became the themes of the day. The business community felt it could do everything much better, and people were willing to play along until well into the early 2000s. That changed after the 2008 financial crisis, when people discovered that some banks and insurers themselves could not be trusted; and so trust in the wider business community was lost.

The citizen himself then assumed authority as the strongest segment of Dutch society. Thanks to the internet and social media, average citizens gained additional resources to gather information and shake their fists. In this way, people learned to trust themselves and other individuals.

This is the reason that communications professionals have started to work more with influencers and endorsers. If brands are not trusted themselves, who can they collaborate with who still have that trust? Vloggers and bloggers with large followings are the new reality in marketing – not principally because they are young, or flashy, or cost-effective, but rather because they are trusted. In the realm of corporate communications and public affairs, we are also looking for credible advocates who can inspire more trust among government and consumer decision makers.

Add to these trust-related challenges the reality of a swiftly evolving media landscape. We all know the different channels of our communications output: earned, shared, owned and paid. The first of these, earned, now poses a particularly big challenge. What is newsworthy? How do we create free publicity? The media themselves are under considerable pressure to remain financially viable. Subscriber numbers are in decline and advertising revenues are shrinking. More than ever, the most important news criteria are conflict and human interest, because these are what sells. The media are behaving more like activists and are increasingly arguing for one position over another.

We even see that bodies of formal authority, such as public prosecutors and regulators, are increasingly pursuing an activist media agenda. As a result, reputational damage is becoming just as perilous for our customers as any conviction or penalty.

All of this means that our challenges as communication professionals are growing every day. How do we ensure that our clients retain trust – directly or indirectly? How do we prevent reputational damage given the reality of activist media and regulators? How do we reach people when they are increasingly trapped in their own news bubbles?

This assessment may sound bleak, but I see it as something very motivating. As representatives of commercial companies, we have a clear purpose and social relevance. We are tasked with using facts to battle against attacks on the images of our clients, and to build trust both in them and for society as whole. We can – and must – be critical of our clients and be bold in our advice. It’s important that we be selective in what we want to do. The quality of a society stands or falls with its checks and balances. We have a role to play as communications professionals. Trust by truth.