What does ‘trust’ mean for business in a networked social world?

Trust is a four letter word right now. And it usually comes with ‘I don’t’ before it. It is like happiness. We all agree it is a Good Thing and we want it. But we rarely sit down and think about what it actually means. We talk naturally about trusting friends or lovers (or not) but when it comes to business we get lost in surveys, slogans and wishful non-thinking.

[This is a longer version of an article that first appeared in ‘Influencer’ magazine]

I am a journalist so I am way down there in the opinion poll trust rankings with estate agents, politicians and, now it seems, social media networks. But you are reading this (so far at least) because, I expect, you trust I will come up with something that you will appreciate. And even if you don’t, I trust that you will have at least had a worthwhile exchange of thought.

I now work in a University, so perhaps I will either benefit from high levels of recorded public trust in professors or are you one of those people who Michael Gove said don’t trust ‘experts’ anymore? That is how trust works in journalism and most other forms of communication and human exchange. I have to earn every bit of trust from you by what I do, not just because of who I am. So here goes.

Truth, trust and technology

The concept of trust is so important that it is one of the three pillars for our LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission that investigated the crisis in public information in the UK and published a lengthy report on how we can build trust. After nine months of work on this (on top of a decade spent researching journalism ethics and economy), I am more convinced than ever that it is the central concept to understanding how we deal with ‘fake news’, disinformation, and the confusion and damage being done by some recent media trends.

Trust In Me

Take Facebook. Most of the people reading this are on Facebook. They generally find it amusing, stimulating and even useful. We ‘like’ it a lot. Yet whenever I ask, people tell me they don’t ‘trust’ Facebook. This is like our trust relationship with the banks. After the financial crisis of 2008 few people would say they ‘trust’ those institutions. And yet we happily trust banks to provide us with important services like mortgages or every day transactions such as getting your hard-earned from a cash machine.

The growing mistrust of new technology companies such as Facebook is partly because of recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica but also a sense that Mark Zuckerberg’s massively successful network is a place where our privacy is at risk and where we don’t really understand what is going on. We feel we are being lured in with kittens and news of our friends’ children and then end up being deluged with creepily personalised advertising. Increasingly, businesses rely on these networks to market or communicate. If the public don’t trust them, they might not trust you.

So what can you do?

Firstly, be afraid. We all know about the reputation risks of social media. How an ill-judged tweet can attract an online lynch-mob. How trolls can roam across your carefully crafted campaign. It pays to keep a watchful eye on your public digital presence in the same way you hire a security guard to patrol your premises. We are now aware that in their rush to market our attention to advertisers, the platforms have paid much less attention to the harmful effects they can have. You or your business could become collateral damage on networks that users feel have turned into febrile soups of anger, confusion and manipulation.

Secondly, stop being defensive and be yourself. All the evidence is that people lose trust when someone is pretending to be something they are not. Especially online. The potential for fakery is now so huge that the authentic and accountable is at a premium. Social media is social. It is a relationship. That can include emotions such as empathy and humour as well as accuracy, reliability and honesty. That is why people say they do trust their peers in their networks.

But wait a second. I said at the start of this that trust is the most ill-defined word. Your first step is to decide what your business means by trust. If you are a dodgy organisation then it really doesn’t matter. Communications won’t ever heal the rift between reality and communications. Especially online.

Trust In Action

But if you want to be ‘trusted’ then define the values that you are going to put into action. Is it honesty? Transparency? Openness? Accountability? Have you put in place systems to make that happen and to ensure they are effective? Do you audit those systems and their impact both internally and externally?

Ask yourself, what is trust for your service or product? Like the banks it might well be delivering those services in an efficient, timely, financially efficient way. Are you clear and fair about how you do that and how you explain your practices?

If it is influence you are after then it might be about getting people’s attention and then telling them something meaningful that is relevant, useful and interesting. That might mean you should be listening a lot more before you speak. Have you got systems in place to do that and to analyse the data or responses you get?

Trust is defined by academics in many different ways. It can be ‘thin’ or ‘thick’. It can be personal or institutional. It can be idealised or instrumental. It can be related to your identity or your experience. It can be instinctive or learnt. Mostly we trust what is familiar and yet the most important kind of trust is in something or someone that we do not know or something new. “Trust me, we can do this” are the hardest words.

In the end my advice is to try this experiment. Every time you want to use the word ‘trust’ try thinking of another word that describes what you really mean. If you then understand better what makes up trust for you, perhaps your staff and your customers will have real reasons to trust in you and what you do.

This article by Charlie Beckett @CharlieBeckett, director of the LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission.

Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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