Let’s Be Honest: What Building Trust is All About

I recently heard about National Tell the Truth Day, which falls every year on July 7, and my thoughts went to telling the truth in marketing and communications, and how honesty plays such a big role in successful communication.  

No sooner did I hear about it I stumbled upon a story in my feed about dishonesty in marketing, citing Burger King being charged with a class-action lawsuit for portraying its Whopper as 30% larger in advertising than in reality. It got me thinking about truth, trust and honesty in business. 

Telling the truth builds trust in relationships. And it’s essential in fostering brand trust.  

It’s easy to find examples of companies getting caught using misleading marketing or downright lying about a product. A quick search brings up plenty of cautionary tales. For example, Vitaminwater® allegedly claimed its products could reduce the risk of eye disease, among other health claims, and the Lumosity® App is said to have implied its game could help prevent Alzheimer’s.  

Need more “proof?” Want more “evidence?” A food giant once claimed its baby formula could prevent children from developing allergies. Another promoted its yogurts as containing “scientifically proven” bacteria to strengthen people’s immune systems. One feels sympathy for Red Bull®, which faced (and lost) a lawsuit by customers who didn’t sprout wings after years of drinking the beverage. Granted, that last one is quite funny and frivolous, but it cost the company US$13 million. The point is that there’s both a financial risk to marketing claims, and a reputation risk.  

The news doesn’t get much better when we look at the level of trust in PR and business leaders. In 2020, Leger conducted a study to measure trust and the public perception of PR in Canada. This unique research measured the perceptions and attitudes of the public as well as PR professionals. One interesting insight was that public relations and communications professionals report stronger levels of trust in their colleagues than the public at large, and see themselves as more credible and trustworthy than the general population does.  

Just over half of respondents (53%) believed that businesses behave ethically, while a much larger percentage (64%) of public relations and communications professionals hold that opinion. Nearly all communicators (94%) believe their peers generally act ethically; however, the general public ranks communications and public relations professionals (at 52%) as the sixth most ethical source of information behind friends and /or family (91%), subject matter experts (81%), employees of organizations (72%), journalists (61%), and advocates (59%). 

There is an erosion of trust across government, media and non-governmental organizations. Solid, honest communication is needed more than ever. 

Organizations need to back up any statements with reliable sources, scientific data, and verified information. Your organization’s brand is your promise to your customers, stakeholders and audiences. Growing trust is the most effective way to build a reputation. A building block is maintaining that honesty with your stakeholders.  

Once the promise is broken, it isn’t easy to regain share of heart (and wallet). Building back trust is much more costly. Still, it can be done through consistent communications and being up-front and honest about the company’s errors, its commitment to finding solutions to fix what’s wrong, and a clear roadmap of how your organization will get there.  

To build a strong community – one that will support you or at least give you the benefit of the doubt when things go sideways – your stakeholders must connect and believe in your brand. Honesty must be part of your guiding principles and daily business practices. 

As much as leaders want to communicate the best aspects of their product or services, it can be easy to fall into misleading statements to gain airtime, get attention with a catchy ad, or to make an impression on your audience.  

The news isn’t all bad, however. There are opportunities to build trust in an authentic way. The Leger study found areas of significant agreement between Canadians and public relations and communications professionals. The areas where these two groups agree the most are in the role of PR within organizations, the importance of ethics and accreditation and the role of the professional association.   

As part of our services to leaders, Argyle has provided guidance to manage risks but to also seize opportunities. Over the years, Argyle has supported diverse organizations in building trust by communicating their values with confidence and empathy, through respectful dialogue and tangible action. 

Here are a few recent examples, from launching a new school division brand, to building reputation in the financial sector, to communicating culturally appropriate health information. They each reflect how honesty is vital in each industry, and that honesty builds trust with stakeholders, creating a stable foundation to either start a brand or to build on an existing brand promise. 

Frontier School Division – Launching an Authentic Brand 
Desjardins – Earning reputation through thought leadership 
National Association of Friendship Centres – #TakeCareinCOVID 

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