Only 18% of people trust business leaders to tell the truth–globally. And less than 50% of people trust businesses to do the right things, even less for government. These are some of the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer--one of the most important studies in communications.
There are lots of stories out in PR newsletters right now about these findings and what they mean. Here is Bulldog Reporter’s take. Here is the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Here’s the PR Daily story. It’s important to note that while there was some significantly declines, there were also some signs of modest improvement.
What I’m focusing on is the strong belief that most are liars. Think about it for a moment. Most crisis plans include putting the CEO or some other senior business leader out there in front of the cameras, on YouTube or wherever and telling what is going on and what the company or organization is committed to doing about it. If there are 100 people in a room watching your CEO talk, 82 of them are saying either to themselves or out loud: Liar, Liar!
The chart from the Edelman slide deck below (link above) shows who is most and least credible. Think about this. NGOs are the most trusted institutions, academics or technical experts from your organization are far, far more trusted than CEOs. So are regular people, people like yourself.
So, when credibility is on the line (and when isn’t it, particularly in a crisis) who should you have speaking for you? In my book Now Is Too Late I talked about the concept of borrowed credibility. I commented that the crisis communication game is primarily about credibility particularly when there are black hats and white hats involved. It’s a game you cannot afford to lose. But, say you lose all credibility–fairly or unfairly. Your CEO or Chairman becomes the equivalent of a Tony Hayward or Lance Armstrong. Then what? You have to borrow the credibility of others. You have to find those who have high credibility among your target audience and have them speak on your behalf. Of course, if they have high credibility it is because they have proven themselves to be people of character and honesty. They will not be co-opted. That’s a good thing because if someone with high credibility starts speaking on behalf of a seriously damaged organization, the first thing they are going to have to say is that they have not been co-opted, induced, forced or any way gotten involved in a way that damages their credibility.
But, maybe we should be thinking far in advance about who has credibility and should or could be speaking on our behalf in a crisis. Again in Now Is Too Late I talked about putting reputation equity in the bank–you may need to cash those checks. One of the best ways to do that is by making friends with those you may need to rely on in a crisis. Let’s say you are a company with some past environmental conflicts. To have a leading global or local environmental group and leadership engaged with you in getting your act together, being open and honest with them about what you are doing, getting their help in thinking through some of your dilemmas just may pay huge dividends when push comes to shove. Sure, could be very risky because I’ve had one who when it did come to shove turn on me and my client taking full advantage of my openness to hurt us. So, I am suggesting you think about it with some real caution.
The point is clear–in this environment of lack of trust, we need to think about the best ways to build credibility for our organization in times of crisis. To do that, we need to be very realistic about the environment we’re operating in.