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Overcoming the trust deficit

By Peter Gilheany, Forster Communications.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at the CharityComms conference on charities using communications to build and maintain trust and I thought it would be worth turning that presentation into some more considered thoughts.

Trust has two very important characteristics – the first is you notice its absence much more than its presence. When you have it, it just feels like business as usual and it is very easy to take it for granted.

Secondly, as I am only too personally aware, it is the inverse of excess weight in that it is very easy to lose and takes huge amounts of time, pain and effort to gain.

It’s also never been more important as an issue for charities because we are in the midst of something of a crisis of trust, for which we have identified three main drivers.

1. The rise of populism

Consistent lying and appealing to populism as a strategy for survival is entrenched and undermines public trust in government and our political system, increasing apathy and cynicism.

2. Holding people and organisations to account

A very positive recent development is the increasing questioning and scrutiny of organisations and a hardening intolerance for hypocrisy and lack of progressive action. This is evident in the voluntary sector with movements like #CharitySoWhite and #NotJustNCVO. The reason it is eroding trust is that organisations are responding to the discomfort and challenge by retreating into their shells and being defensive and evasive.

3. Weaponisation through social media

Both of those first two drivers are being facilitated and accelerated by the power and ubiquity of social media, to the point that the erosion of trust feels overwhelming and all-encompassing. That is exacerbated by the difficulty of being proportionate and nuanced in the bearpit of social media spaces like Twitter. Subjectivity and feeling have been elevated, making concepts of truth much more contested. Many of us are left feeling confused and not really knowing what we are supposed to think about a specific issue or organisation.

All of this means that among some of our big institutions – the police, government, the NHS and charities in certain areas, trust is getting chipped away or under constant challenge.

Charities are increasingly having to go beyond explaining what they are trying to do and why by outlining how they are going about it and how that approach relates to their stated beliefs and values. This is particularly evident for issues like diversity, equity and inclusion.

So, what does that mean for charity communications?

Here are some simple principles to consider when it comes to maintaining and building trust in your comms. There is nothing here you won’t already be aware of, the crucial thing is taking the time to consider them.

Less but better

First, maybe it is time to dial back the volume of your comms to focus on engaging the audiences that matter about the things that really matter – rather than adding to the cacophony.

By continuing to communicate a lot and responding to the pressure to communicate, the quality and clarity can suffer. Instead of adding to the noise, it’s time to consider every piece of communication you do and ask: ‘how is it adding value to what we’re trying to achieve?’.

Being clear-eyed on audience is crucial. One of the obstacles to maintaining trust is the growth and the sheer distraction of bad faith merchants, particularly on social media.

The most important audiences are the ones that you have the closest relationship with, starting with your own staff and beneficiaries and working outwards. If 80% of your communication focuses on those audiences, then you’re definitely doing the right thing.

Also, prioritise channels where you can have more control and better quality engagement. The pandemic has had a real impact on face-to-face communications and opportunities to engage with people on a human level. We’ve done a lot of remoteness. This remoteness isn’t brilliant for empathy, human contact or getting the message across. There is an imperative to think about how you can use those more direct forms of engagement – particularly face to face, physical events as much as possible to support what you’re trying to get across.

Be open

Tell people what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why. Then tell them the impact it is having, the challenges you face and the failings and learnings along the way.

Be visible

Being visible means actively talking about the issues you might be facing and when things have gone wrong. Encourage debate and input around some of the issues that you might be experiencing, don’t pretend you have all the answers. Being visible is easy to say and much harder to do, but it’s critical because it treats your audiences like grown-ups – they know when you are trying to hide things.

Be human

Ensure all your communications feel like they come from a real person and has a human face. If it feels institutional, it needs to change.

Acknowledge complexity

We have always lived in a complicated time. Rather than try and push against that – acknowledge it, accept there is uncertainty and talk about it.  

Be open about risk. Talk about how important it is to understand and respond to the audiences that are affected by what you’re doing – it’s much more likely to cut through some of the noise and engage the audiences who matter to you.

Be a platform

Being a mouthpiece is important – making noise, having opinions and wanting to gain influence is hugely important. However, they are more powerful when they’re supported by an organisation that elevates the voices of the people who it seeks to represent and support.

Engage in dialogue

Sometimes, we can easily forget that there’s an audience there. We need to encourage dialogue, and dialogue is much more likely to result in better engagement. Ask questions of them – in some cases, they are often the experts on the issues or areas that you’re looking to communicate on, so listen. These people are affected by you, you want to have a relationship with them and not with the bad faith merchants who gum up the works.

Lean into criticism

When you are criticised there is a temptation to hide and become passive in your responses. As much as possible, be as active as you can in response, even if it’s likely to attract further criticism. Grasp hold of the criticism, defend vigorously if it is unwarranted, acknowledge any fault or failure, communicate empathy for those affected and communicate what you are doing to put things right.

As ever, there is no magic wand for building trust. It requires a lot of work but that work is much more likely to succeed if all the parties involved treat everyone else as grown-ups.  

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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