Risk, Issues & Crisis

June 2, 2017

Building trust in a digital world


Written by Debbie Daly, Associate Partner. This article originally appeared in Continuity Centralview here

Building trust in your company is a fundamental part of doing business, forming the basis for long-term relationships with your stakeholders, be they customers, shareholders or suppliers. But public trust in business is at an all-time low. Routinely portrayed by media as the ‘bad guys’, a recent study by the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) shows that public confidence in business behaviour dropped 11 percent in 2016, with fewer than half (48 percent) of respondents believing that business behaves ethically.

Why should companies take notice of this? Trust is a valuable business asset. It is why your customers do business with you; why consumers buy your products; and is the foundation on which to build resilience and reputation. Trust is built when a company consistently acts in accordance with stakeholder expectations and is broken when it is seen to be falling short.

A fragile thing, trust takes years to build and seconds to lose and has never been more under threat than in the digital age. In a global 24/7 news environment, with every individual a potential commentator, even the smallest things can trip a business up.

Trust in a digital world
The digital world has transformed the way we live, work and operate beyond all recognition. There are now over 3.4 billion Internet users and 2.3 billion social media users around the globe. Facebook, launched in 2007, is now the most popular source of news amongst adults in the UK; Uber, the world’s biggest taxi company owns no cabs; Airbnb, the world’s biggest accommodation provider, owns no property. Over 6.5 billion Internet searches are conducted daily as we research where to live, work, eat, what to buy and which companies to do business with.

The reality for business is that public expectations have shifted – there is no longer anywhere to hide and in a crowded environment of information overload, it is harder than ever for businesses to achieve cut-through with their messages.

Whilst digital media is a channel for communications like any other, because of its ubiquity it is also a very effective amplifier of what is said: good or bad. For this reason, the principles of good communication apply even more strictly. A planned and professional approach is vital and businesses need to understand who they want to talk to, why, and what they want to say.

Too often in the past companies have put young inexperienced employees in charge of social media channels simply because they understand how it works. But just as you wouldn’t put an intern in front of the media at an important news conference, you shouldn’t put the graduate trainee in sole charge of your Twitter feed.

Social media also differs in that communication through digital channels is a dialogue rather than a broadcast of information. This is one of the reasons it can play an important part in building trust during both business as usual and in crisis situations. Trust is built every day, through transparency around what you say and do and by being responsive when things go wrong.

Building up trust and goodwill with stakeholder communities during the good times can turn customers into advocates and give a company the buffer it needs to effectively deal with and re-establish its business in times of crisis.

Social media – basic principles
It’s a whole new world out there but there are a few key areas that every company should consider.

No strategy is not strategy: it’s too late to ignore social media – it’s part of our world and it isn’t going away. Every company needs a social media policy for its employees (who will be active on social media) and a strategy for digital media in both peace time and crisis. Even if that strategy is not to engage, this needs to be a thought-through decision rather than an omission. And remember in a time of crisis if you don’t fill the information vacuum, someone else will.

Remember the two golden rules of social media: purpose and personality and quality over quantity. Different channels work in different ways. Each of your corporate channels should have a clear purpose with content tailored to the channel and which adds value for your audience.

Be authentic and relevant: to your audience, your channel and your brand – in that order. Know your brand and respond in accordance with those values. Understand your stakeholder expectations and be prepared to meet them through your responses and actions.

Be integrated – don’t think in silos. Smartphone screens are now the primary screens for most social media users. Your information needs to be in lots of different places, played out in different ways but with consistent messaging and content, and enabled for mobile

Don’t forget the social part of social media – engage, have fun, be human and respond. Content must be interesting, engaging or add something new to the conversation. Your aim is to build communities which feel invested in and connected to your business. These are your advocates in difficult times and your allies in the good times.

Be prepared: in ‘peace time’ plan your content and resources, pre-prepare responses according to possible scenarios. A crisis can hit at any time and without warning. In the age of the citizen journalist the world could be viewing an incident involving your business before it reaches you through traditional channels. With the right preparation you can respond quickly, with consistency and transparency, regaining control of the situation and building confidence in the company’s ability to manage the issue.

Keep moving and keep your finger on the pulse. Be the trusted voice of authority on your specific product and your product area, build relationships and brand loyalty and try and connect with new audiences.

See the scale of the opportunity – as well as the pitfalls. Customers, suppliers and other stakeholders can be your best sales people, recommending your products, connecting you with potential new customers and advocating on behalf of the company

Finally, remember – when you need a friend, it’s too late to make one. Social media is a key way you can build trust, and bridges, when times are good, which serves as credit in the bank in times of crisis, minimising damage to your brand and helping your business bounce back.