In December, Harris Interactive released its latest annual study on the American public’s trust in 19 different major industries. As someone who heard about the findings before but never really studied them, the findings were shocking to me. Supermarkets scored highest – with 30% of the public’s trust. Hospitals were second, at 28%, and banks and online search engines scored at 18%. Oil and tobacco companies were at the bottom of the list, with 4% and 3% respectively.
While I’m sure it’s true that many of the businesses in these industries today are trustworthy, and a few bad apples are ruining the entire bunch, the findings still don’t inspire much confidence in American businesses these days. Consider these truths, according to the survey:
- A strong majority of Americans trust no major industries today.
- Six of America’s major industries have less than 10% of the public’s trust – and 17 of 19 have less than 20%.
- There isn’t a single major American industry (of the ones surveyed) that improved in trust over the past year – or over the past decade as a whole.
The survey results are sad, but we as communicators have an opportunity and a responsibility to help right the ship. I’ve long been a believer that everything in business – as in life – boils down to communications. Referring to basic communications theory, absolutely everything (verbal and nonverbal) revolves around a sender delivering a message through a channel to a receiver, trying to avoid noise that may distort the message and then receiving feedback from the receiver to ensure the message was understood and had the impact they wanted. Think about it…it’s pretty remarkable how this is true.
You may be asking yourself how all of this is relevant to overall trust levels of the American economy. I’d say it’s quite relevant, in these ways:
- Let’s start with the messages themselves. Are businesses saying the right things to the public – and most importantly, being honest and forthright? Is messaging consistent? The more they answer these questions in the affirmative, the more trustworthy they will be.
- Let’s look at the channels. It’s usually mass media that does the economy’s talking, and a few talking heads and big-ego CEOs that dominate that discussion. Are they relying on these “colder” media only, or are they engaging the public through other channels that might mean more and be more authentic? Diversified strategies tend to work well.
- Are the messages getting through, and being heard in the manner that companies would like? Is there noise (other news events, other issues and trends in play, etc.) that distorts the message or inhibits the receiver’s ability to understand it? Obviously, the more direct the message and the channel, the better the chance that the communication will succeed.
- Are companies listening? Maybe the most important part of earning the public’s trust is listening to the feedback that it gives and then integrating it appropriately. The public is smarter than many people think it is, and I believe that if the public senses that a company just isn’t speaking its language – and that trend holds over time – they will tune out. Even worse, if feedback is given and ignored – or companies make no effort to listen at all – bridges end up burned.
Clearly, the American economy has a long way to go to regain the trust of its public. It’s up to us, as professional communicators, to understand the basics of what good and trustworthy communications are and ask these kinds of questions as we audit our programs and see if they’re working or not. Then it’s up to us to come up with the optimal strategies for our organizations, sell our publics on the importance of this effort and lead the way on strategy and execution. If we don’t, who else will?