Apr 30, 2015

Trusting the faucet, trusting a brand, trusting science

There's the kind of trust that we're aware of. The kind of trust that makes us ask, "do I trust this Craigslist ad?" And then there's the kind of invisible trust that we don't even recognize. Our trust that the lights will turn on when we flip a switch, or that water will flow from a faucet. When Paul Lussier introduced the panel for CBEY's "Sustainability, Transparency, and Metrics in Business" event on April 22nd, he reminded the audience that it's that kind of trust that companies and organizations live or die by. In fact, he said that the "absence of trust is often the way in which we often come to terms with trust." In other words, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. In the next quick hour, Marissa Galizia (MEM/MBA '15) moderated a robust panel covering the various manifestations of trust with voices from public relations (Gail Becker and Carol Cone of Edelman), industry (Patagonia's Vincent Stanley), science (IPCC's Jonathan Lynn), and assessment (Yale Environmental Perfomance Index's Jason Schwartz). 

Trust Trends: Edelman Trust Barometer 

To kick things off, Gail Becker, Edelman's President of Global Strategic Partnerships, presented the results of Edelman's most recent Trust Barometer survey. The research, which takes an annual look at how people across the globe place trust in governments, companies, media, and NGOs suggests, according to Becker, that we're living in an "era of skepticism." Worldwide trust in three of four categories (companies, media, and NGOs) fell dramatically from 2014 to 2015, and business didn't fare particularly well in many countries. Instead of looking to economic uncertainties for answers, Becker said that this dropping trust reflects a lack of institutional confidence and that we're starting to trust our institutions less, and instead rely more and more on our friends and family for information. As a PR firm, Edelman seeks to help clients tackle these concerns by building and rebuilding trust. To them, there are five key pathways to trust:

  1. Integrity
  2. Engagement
  3. Products & Services
  4. Purpose
  5. Operations

Some companies and institutions are doing a lot better at tackling these components than others, and Becker's colleague, Carol Cone said that it all comes down to authenticity. Cone, who ran her own wildly successful PR firm for years, came to Edelman because she wanted to get the chance to work with the biggest clients on the biggest issues, and that the exciting part was seeing how companies were shifting from an "if" to "how" position on social and environmental responsibility as a means of building trust. With examples from Chipotle (demonstrating integrity through its recent removal of non-humane pork from its menus), CVS (showing engagement by backing away from $2billion in sales of tobacco products), Levi's (reimagining the water needs of its jeans), Starbucks (being purpose-driven with new college tuition programs), and Unilever (addressing its operations at every level of its supply chain through its Sustainable Living Plan), Cone gave the audience a tour of the advantages of companies living their values.

Patagonia: Who's going to buy rock climbing gear they don't trust?

Vincent Stanley, Patagonia's Director of Philosophy, is no stranger to Yale, or to the idea of trust. A frequent, admired speaker at FES and SOM, Stanley emphasized that trust wasn't something Patagonia could earn over time. It had to be there from the start. It's one thing if a pen breaks. It's another if your rope or caribiner fails while rock climbing. So, as a climbing company that was making products for its employees, friends, and friends of friends, Patagonia had to make sure that each and every product was reliable from day one. And, their marketing and communications strategies have followed suit. They write ads as if they are writing them for themselves. This allows them to be authentic, even if it may have slowed their growth. Even that slower growth has a purpose - it lets them expand consciously, and means that they cultivate new customers for life. While many companies look to Patagonia as a model, Stanley warned that each company has to want to look like itself, rather than its competition. By looking internally, companies can find their true identities, and provide a stronger sense of discipline for what does and does not fit into effective strategies.

Can we trust the science?

Although, as Becker mentioned, people trust friends and family the most, scientists and academics are still close behind. Representing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Communitcations and Media Relations Head Jonathan Lynn was quick to emphasize that although science has been increasingly politicized especially in the US, we still trust scientists to a large degree. But, there are two fundamental problems with trust in science, Lynn said. First, the IPCC has a dedicated, well-funded community actively trying to undermine trust, and second, scientists themselves lack many of the communication skills that Stanley, Becker, and Cone suggested are vital to spreading messages. The IPCC is actively engaged in trying to deal at least with the second problem by cultivating new communications strategies, but Lynn underlined the fact that science communication cannot stray too far into the world of marketing without losing that vital ingredient: authenticity.

Trust and transparency

Rounding out the panel, Environmental Performance Index Program Manager Jason Schwartz (MEM '13), spoke to the opportunities and challenges that indexes like the EPI offer. In its regular ranking of the ways in which countries around the world are performing on a variety of crucial environmental indicators, the EPI provides insights for businesses into successful approaches. However, Schwartz also emphasized the role that trust plays in the ways in which the EPI team is able to compile its reports. Relying on publicly available datasets means that the EPI has to trust how countries report on their actions, but it also spurs the team to evaluate what types of data to trust. In addition, going forward, as transparency becomes even more critical in environmental reporting, the EPI team is looking for ways in which overall government transparency could factor into its rankings.