Building Trust In An Era Of Fake News
By Tom Martin
Executive in Residence at The College of Charleston
In the communication world, few topics have ever been so hotly contested as the current debate about fake news. Some define “fake” as any statement of facts other than the ones with which you agree. Others would argue that those who have popularized this term have succeeded in sowing genuine doubt about who to trust—in politics, in the news media, and even among your friends and family. It seems that now two people can look at the same set of data and draw wildly disparate conclusions as to its meaning.
I’m not about to enter the fake news throw-down. Instead, I think it provides an opportunity for each of us to take a fresh look at the way we communicate with our stakeholders and ask ourselves some tough questions about how authentic we really are in conveying the truth about our organizations.
An organization of which I am a member, the Arthur W. Page Society, has conducted a great deal of research into the nature of trust, corporate character, and authenticity. The white papers that are based on this research can be found on their web site, www.awpagesociety.com
, and are available to anyone at no cost.
Fundamentally, what this work amplifies is that stakeholders tend to base their judgements about trust and authenticity far more on what an organization—be it a company, a government agency, an academic institution or a nonprofit—does through its actions and behavior than what it says about itself through advertising, press releases, internet sites or social media posts.
While this may seem self-evident, recent actions by well-regarded global companies demonstrate that it is a hard lesson to learn.
Take United Airlines, for example. The viral video of one of its passengers being bloodied and forcibly removed from one of its planes was bad enough. But the company’s public responses to the debacle, including the early comments of its CEO, only exacerbated the erosion of trust the incident created. Blaming the victim and describing the situation as a “deplaning” didn’t pass the smell test.
Or consider Samsung’s exploding phones. No amount of satellite media tours, company-sponsored blogs, or Super Bowl ads could overcome the scenes of phones igniting on airplanes, in pants pockets, and in burning vehicles. Samsung was also slow to react at first, which made the company look insensitive to its customers’ safety. It will take years without any future exploding phones to fully restore the public’s faith in its products.
Then we have the case of Travis Kalanick, recently deposed CEO of Uber. For months, Kalanick and his company had been in the news for the wrong reasons. The New Year’s Eve YouTube video of an impaired Kalanick belittling his own Uber driver reinforced previous reports of the arrogant corporate culture that Kalanick helped create. When more serious charges of pervasive sexual harassment at the company’s headquarters became more prevalent, Uber’s board eventually demanded Kalanick’s resignation. By dragging its feet, Uber’s leadership was criticized for looking the other way when there was clear evidence of a problem.
Closer to home, I will share the case of a health care provider with whom I had a recent experience to demonstrate how authenticity translates to the local level. I had been trying to resolve a billing issue that involved this provider and my health insurance company. I had several frustrating calls with all parties involved, including a conference call with the insurance company and the person who handles billing for this dentist. We’ve all been there. But when I was about to give up, I received a call directly from the dentist himself. He apologized for the problem and though it was as much a mistake of the insurance company as it was his office, he informed me that they would be issuing a check for the full amount of reimbursement that week. They would resolve it with the insurance company later. Needless to say, I was surprised and grateful.
He didn’t have to do that, but his action made a lasting impression. That’s really what authenticity is about. Standing behind your product or service. Owning up to your mistakes, quickly and unconditionally. Being straight with your employees, whether the news is good or bad. It sounds so simple, yet very smart people at very sophisticated organizations continue to let us down, to hide behind disclaimers, to obfuscate the truth.
In today’s increasingly skeptical world, those who can both speak and act with authenticity will gain a significant competitive advantage. And you can’t fake that.