Can Business Regain the Public’s Trust?
Written by Ashley Kemball-Cook
I was asked to speak at an event hosted by PwC and the Institute of Ideas on the topic of Trust- ‘can business regain the public’s trust?’ I was joined on the panel by some brilliant thought leaders: Oonagh Harpur (Senior Advisor, Corporate Strategy advisor), Mary Monfries (Partner at PwC), Daniel Ben-Ami (finance and economics writer), and Clare Melford (Formerly CEO of the International Business Leaders Forum). The discussion was lively as the panel had (sometimes drastically) different opinions.
I believe that regaining trust is about actions that build trust and is not about clever PR campaigns focussed on “good deeds”. It is about fundamentally re-orienting the business to play a positive role in society. The actions in pursuit of this purpose are the building blocks of regaining and sustaining the trust of people (both within and outside of the business).
It is going to be hard to regain society’s trust because everything business does is under scrutiny from the media. Past mistakes and misdeeds are ever present; what business needs to do is change future conversations about the role of business in society and how each business is living up to those standards.
A recent Edelman survey stated that the main reason the public gives for this loss of trust in business is corruption, fraud, and the wrong incentives driving business decisions.
There have been some good steps towards regaining the public’s trust with both transparency and regulation, but these do not offer the complete solution.
Transparency can offer the public some confidence that business is behaving as they say they are, but the public knows all too well that if you want to hide a leaf, you put it in a forest. They have become untrusting of annual reports that run for hundreds of pages, so long in fact that they almost block any kind of meaningful insight into a particular business. As professor John Kay said on this topic; “When you quiz your children about where they have been for the evening it is not because you are confident that they have behaved well, if you were confident that they have behaved well then you probably don’t bother to ask them.” Transparency should not be seen as a substitute for trust and it alone is not the solution.
Law and regulation is essential in order to protect people from dishonesty and exploitation; however, it is difficult to pre-empt and regulate for the every single future problem. There is also a danger that regulation can have the result that people outsource moral values by treating law and regulation as the complete boundaries of morality – in effect it gives them permission to do anything that is not illegal. We must empower individuals to use their own personal values. Businesses must go beyond regulation, they must act with integrity and accountability to grow and retain trust from society.
Trust cannot be taken or demanded, it must be earned. For business to be trusted it must be trustworthy. If the problem of trust lies between business and society the heart of the solution, therefore, lies in the relationships and behaviours that connect business and society. Business must show that it is not pitted against society but part of society and both thriving together.
Blueprint have drawn from strong foundations of learning from society including philosophy, faiths teachings and social and behavioural science to develop tools to help business and society thrive together. These tools are made to be business credible, practical and a distillation of what society expects. The businesses that have used these tools have stated that it acts as a useful internal mirror to guide their decision making.
The keys aspects of these tools are the need for businesses to find and live by their purpose, encourage behaviours needed to deliver that purpose and build positive relationships with all their stakeholders.
Finding and living to a purpose is not a quick fix, it is a journey. Businesses embarking on this journey should be open and welcome public dialogue. There will be setbacks but what is important is dealing with any setbacks in a way that reinforces the purpose, respect for people and a focus on the common good. It is about creating honest and understanding dialogue between the public and business. Right now there is criticism without any appreciation for the difficulties that business undergoes. The media asks a company; why aren’t all your products green? The truthful answer is that if they made this change immediately then they would go out of business. They clearly have a responsibility to employees and shareholders not to do that. Businesses can put into action a long term plan to innovate into their purpose, design new products and services that do align with their purpose.
If a company has a purpose that respects people and serves the common good, it creates a more engaged and innovative workforce but also a better society in which to live. What’s more, having this creates a culture that drives trustworthy decisions and actions, these are a vital step in regaining the public’s trust.