7 March 2019

Are you surfing the “Trust Deficit”​ Wave or being washed in its wake?

Trust! It’s everywhere all of a sudden, and nowhere at the same time. Headline after headline is full of “leaders” from all walks of life speaking about how their constituencies (voters, customers, fans, viewers) have lost trust in them.

The Australian Financial Review’s Business Leaders Summit was the latest forum for this discussion, but it’s also happening in every corporate boardroom, in every political office, in every media organisation, and in every government department. There is a lot of description of the problem (not all that hard, “people don’t trust us anymore“) and why it has come about (“we are not very trustworthy sometimes and people have detected that“, again, rocket science). When it comes to the way forward- how to rebuild trust- it gets a lot harder, and a lot more platitudinal.

The trust deficit seems like a wave that has been swelling over the horizon for years and suddenly broken, and some of the people swimming just didn’t see it coming. They are being washed about in it, and seem only to be capable of describing the wave and its effect on their organisations, rather than how to get safely back to shore. But the leaders of the Australian corporate affairs industry- the heads of corporate affairs of our largest companies, government departments, and communications agencies, should be surfing on it. For years, these people have been pointing to the wave building over the horizon and warning people to get ready for it. The fact that others in their organisations have now experienced the crash of the wave and its destabilising effects for themselves is actually a positive. They are finally getting what we have been telling them for years- ignore reputation at your own peril- and the time is now ripe for us to harness their support in creating real change.

My message is simple. Yes it’s terrible that trust has been eroded, but if you are not taking advantage of this situation as a corporate affairs leader, then hand back your surfboard and trudge back up the beach to the car! The wave is our friend and our best chance of demonstrating the value we bring to our employers.

Here’s my “surf the wave” checklist for all corporate affairs leaders. These are my thoughts on the issues you need to constantly assess and prosecute with your organisational leadership.

1. Structure.

Where does reputation sit in your organisation? Ask the CEO and the Chair if they believe the Board has sufficient reputation/trust management experience on it. If not, why not? Is the Chief Reputation Executive a direct report to the CEO? If not, why not? How can we rebuild trust if we don’t elevate it to sit at the same level as the finances and legals? Do all of the people who work in your organisation have a trust/reputation/customer satisfaction/be a good person measure built into their KPI’s? If not, why not? How can we rebuild trust if we don’t reward the behaviour that creates it?

2. Less talk, more action.

What are we changing in what we do, rather than what we say? The Royal Commission exposed many things, but none more so than the gap between what the banks say and what they do. The skilled trust deficit wave surfer pushes hard for changed actions and behaviours, not tweaked mission and values statements. And but this I mean, we point out the exact changes that need to be made, because we are close enough to the operations of the organisation that we can work with our colleagues to identify them (and the costs of implementing them). We can no longer afford to be the smarty-pants in the meeting that says “well let’s just stop (insert egregious behaviour here)” without sorting through the logistical and revenue implications of replacing (egregious behaviour) for the company. To do this, we need to develop our comms people into more rounded, commercially-savvy executives, make sure they work hand-in-glove with their operational peers, and give them a list of challenges where change, not spin, is required.

3. Resourcing.

For years, the comms/corporate affairs/PR team was the last one on the bus when times were good, and the first thrown off when times were bad. This is our chance to end that dynamic. The cycle of cutting resources for trust and reputation and then expecting better outcomes must end, but only if we fight hard for our fair share of the budget. What better way to do this than using the momentum of the trust deficit wave? Tell the CEO in no uncertain terms that surfboards cost money, and surfing lessons aren’t cheap. Be honest, have you really had a tough conversation with your leaders about the proper level of budget and headcount and external resources you need to get the job done now that the wave has broken? I am constantly amazed at the chronic under-resourcing of our discipline within most Australian and New Zealand organisations, especially when compared to peers in the UK and the US. We have years of catch-up to do, and we can do them quickly if we are courageous enough to ask/demand. We also have to try new ways of delivering outcomes. How can we harness technology to make ourselves more efficient? No CEO worth her or his salt will cop an endless demand for more resources without asking for stats around efficient delivery. What have you done DIFFERENTLY recently? And more importantly, how have you demonstrated the results to your employer?

I have been in the waters of PR, politics, consulting and business for 28 years and in all of that time I have never witnessed conditions like this for advancing our profession. Surf’s up, people!

Ross Thornton
Executive Director and Founder
Temple Executive Search