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Davos: The annual corporate pantomime of trust

Looking for "more trust" is a meaningless exercise, says Robert Phillips.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2016

Christmas may be over but the pantomime season still has weeks to run - even if Andrew, the perennial Party Prince, is not taking to this year’s stage.

As the corporate world puts on its snow shoes and prepares for its annual gathering at the World Economic Forum in Davos, so legions of PR folk will spend the first days of January busily scripting "corporate narratives", "key messages" and prepping Chief Executives for their annual trip to the mountain-top.

Every year follows a depressingly familiar pattern. CEO speeches will feature the "T" word with carefree abandon. "Trust" is the easiest word to write yet much more challenging to explain. Yes, it is important that we all trust our customers (or employees, colleagues, policy-makers – select audience of choice) and that our customers etc. trust us. But much of what is written and then said is little more than platitudinous twaddle. "Trust" has become the most abused and exhausted word in the modern business lexicon (you can trust me on this, I even wrote a book about it).

Business leaders should think instead about trustworthiness – based on honesty, reliability, and competence. Trustworthiness is much more straightforward. Trustworthiness is personal and reciprocal and never a corporate command. "Corporate trust" is essentially a myth.

Surveying and quantifying "trust" has become a business in itself. Smart research tools are good for raising profiles and issues but we should be troubled by their often clunky metrics. Year-on-year trust measurement systems ("trust" up in Brazil, down in China – holding steady among NGOs etc.) grab headlines but ignore nuances of trustworthy behaviour and over-simplify underlying behavioural memes that continue to bedevil business (and politics).

The balance between profit and purpose remains perhaps the most acute of these – the longstanding tension between maximising shareholder value and "doing what is right" has still to be resolved. Within this vacuum, "trust" has become little more than speech-writing and marketing shorthand for exploring everything that ails us with business: a cue-word for examining consistent failures and a seeming inability to do the right thing for the common good.

Davos 2016, like in previous years, will see much handwringing from world business leaders, demanding why one of their number has "abused trust" and what it will take to restore it (while privately thanking god that nothing untoward happened in their organisation, on their watch).

This year’s cause celebre will be Volkswagen. Concern will be delivered through outpourings of shock-horror questions: (a) how could it happen? (b) why did it happen? (c) what comes next for the beleaguered company? (Nothing more than full contrition and radical transparency on all future behaviour will do).

Alongside VW in 2016, please reference Toshiba (2016), GSK (2015), BP (2011), RBS (2009/10 and on-going) and previously Enron, Worldcom and other miscreants. Every year, a global corporation conveniently provides Davos scriptwriters with an opportunity to opinionate on why trust levels in business have fallen so low and why they really do need to be restored.

Except, perhaps they don’t. Looking for "more trust" is a meaningless exercise. The harsh truth is there can be no return to "old trust". This is nothing more than a fiction of corporate imagination. Whistleblowers, social media campaigns, citizen journalists, NGO and shareholder activists have blown away hierarchies that once protected Davos elites. There is nowhere to hide in an open world (at least, not for long) and resistance is futile anyway, as VW and Toshiba eventually found out.

Trust is an outcome to be earned, not in a CEO’s gift as a message to trumpet. If we, humble citizens, can all see this from the valley below, why do leaders atop the mountain remain wilfully blind? Maybe it is all that snow.

Robert is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London. His latest book, Trust Me, PR Is Dead was published in spring 2015.

Read more: Robert Phillips - Confessions of a repentant sinner

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