What do you mean by ‘trust’?

Public cynicism is the biggest challenge for those in the information

business. But there are ways to rebuild trust in what you do…

By Charlie Beckett,

Trust is a bit like happiness. We all agree it’s a good thing and we all want it. But we rarely sit down and think about what it actually means. We talk naturally about trusting friends or lovers, but when it comes to business we get lost in surveys, slogans and wishful non-thinking.

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

Take Facebook. Most of the people who will read this are on Facebook. They generally find it amusing, stimulating and even productive.

We ‘like’ it a lot.

Yet, whenever I ask, people tell me they don’t ‘trust’ Facebook.

It’s a bit like our relationship with the banks after the financial crisis of 2008. Then, few people would have said they trusted banks, yet we continued to turn to them for important services such as mortgages or withdrawing our hard-earned cash from ATMs.

The growing mistrust of the big technology platforms is partly down to 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 being deluged with creepy personalised advertising from businesses that increasingly rely on these networks to market or communicate.


So, what can you do as an organisation or individual to retain and rebuild trust?

First, be afraid. We all know about the reputational 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 digital presence in the same way as you would hire a security guard to patrol your premises.

It’s all too easy for you or your business to become collateral damage on networks that, users feel, have turned into febrile soups of anger, confusion and manipulation.

Second, stop being defensive. 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 authenticity is at a premium.

Social media is social. It is a relationship – and relationships should include emotions such as empathy and humour, as well as accuracy, reliability and honesty.

In practical terms, 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 will never heal the rift between the message and the reality.) If you do want to be ‘trusted’, then define the values that you are going to put into action.

Do they include honesty? Transparency? Openness? Accountability? Have you put in place systems to make that happen and ensured they are effective? Do you audit those systems and their impact both internally and externally?

And ask yourself: what is ‘trust’ for your service or product? As with the banks, it might well be delivering your services in an efficient, timely way. If your product is influence and knowledge, then trust might be about getting people’s attention and telling them something meaningful that is relevant, useful and interesting.

In that case, 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 learned. Mostly we trust what is familiar. Sometimes we have to trust something new or someone we don’t know.

“Trust me, we can do this” are difficult words to say and to believe.

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.

Charlie Beckett is a media professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he leads the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, which will report this autumn. He is also a director of the thinktank Polis.

A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q3 2018.

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