Trust in business will never be the same again

A new emphasis on trustworthiness and the common good will prevail after the COVID-19 crisis passes, writes PR veteran Robert Phillips.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2020

Better understandings of “trust” may yet flow from this crisis.

For too long, politicians and business leaders have used lazy language to blame their own shortcomings on a lack or loss of trust. Their words are often hyperbolic – it’s invariably a “crisis” or a “collapse”. But, as IpsosMORI CEO Ben Page testifies, long-term data simply does not support these claims. 

Some sectors (media and politicians included) remain low in trust but consistently so. In contrast, nurses, doctors and teachers always score highly. There is no universal application when it comes to earning and maintaining “trust”  – by profession or geography – which is why homogenising scores and selling global barometers is futile. Earned trust is an abstract concept and difficult to quantify.

As we work through the COVID-19 crisis, those in positions of power and authority who continue to peddle these trust myths will be found out and held to account - specifically the fairy-tale leaders who make promises they cannot keep and, as University of Bath Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey describes it, live in “the la la land of constantly sunny uplands”. Of the many things we have learned recently, no such uplands exist; fake promises are exposed raw by real news. 

Two major shifts are now likely – and a new dimension of trust is emerging, as the world recovers.

First, the shift from an abstract notion of “trust” (I trust him/ her/ them to do the right thing, whatever that actually means) to a more concrete understanding of trustworthiness. 

There’s an equation to explain this: trustworthiness flows from honesty, competence, reliability and good. It is undermined by self-interest. Our judgment of the government’s handling of the crisis might be considered through this lens.

From a business perspective, the trustworthiness equation is more powerful still. Those leaders, companies and brands who emerge from the tumult as saints will have demonstrated these characteristics through actions, not words. 

This applies especially to those who are re-purposing capital and resources to “do their bit” and/ or protect their workforce and the vulnerable. The sinners will be those who placed self-interest before the common good. Some, as widely reported, have already exposed themselves: step forward, Michael O’Leary and Ryanair – though they are not alone.

The second probable shift is in the shape of trust. The first two decades of the 21st century have already seen movement – from a vertical, imposed model (entirely top-down) to a peer-to-peer, networked one, where trust flows horizontally instead. 

It’s on this basis that we trust total strangers when jumping in their cars (Uber) or sleeping in their beds (AirBnB) – though, given a probable stepped emergence from lockdown, trust indices here might wobble in the short-term. That said, technology – and the traceability that it brings – is sometimes our friend. 

The shift from the vertical to the horizontal model goes some way to explaining the marginalisation of experts, falsely captured within an interpretation of institutional trust. 

Experts, so the narrative runs, were part of the failed 20th century settlement and have  therefore had their time. This is a weak argument, not least because it eschews the shameless politicisation of the anti-expert agenda. Now is most certainly the time to trust experts again. I hope that a return to faith and belief in experts and expertise will enjoy a new permanence.

Critically, a third dimension of trust is emerging from the crisis. We might call this “communitarian” trust – the wisdom of a community to act collectively in the best interests of fellow citizens, often hyper-locally. 

Hence the early decisions for lockdowns and safer social distancing measures, taken at a local level, well ahead of central government edicts; high street businesses and especially food suppliers figuring out support and delivery programmes for the vulnerable within an immediate locale; and the return of neighbourly goodwill – from companies as well as individuals and families. 

All this represents much more than a return to a nostalgic blitz spirit. In the context of a world that has become dangerously atomised, consumerised and selfish, it signals something of a wholesale reset and should be welcomed for it. The profound shift here is towards understanding trust in the context of a better society and the common good.

Robert Phillips is the founder Jericho Chambers; author of Trust Me, PR is Dead (2015) and The Trust Delusion (and How to Avoid It) (2021). The latest Trust Delusion podcast is now available to download

Image credit: Central Press/Getty Images


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