Challenging trust and reputation: BledCom19

Every summer, around 150 people gather in the Slovenian lake resort of Bled for a two-day long speed dating spree in PR ideas.  BledCom sessions are only ten minutes long – quite a challenge if you have spent seven years researching something and have a lot to share.

Over two days I attended 36 sessions, so you can only get a brief sense of what the topic is before you’re on to the next thing.  This is an advantage over other conferences – you don’t find yourself trapped in a room for ages with a researcher solemnly unfurling their methodology over ten slides – everyone has to come to the point quickly and succinctly. It also makes it quite hard to summarise the experience.

You take in a huge variety of ideas – mostly from PR academics, but with some from professional bodies and others from individual practitioners. You don’t get immersed deeply in anything but you go away with plenty of things to follow up and think about.

The theme for 2019 was ‘Trust and Reputation’. I was surprised to find these ideas more strongly contested than I had expected – there were some real challenges to what we understand by these terms and how we apply them.

The conference opened with a brilliant address from Rupert Younger, who cofounded Finsbury and now runs Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. He launched one of the first of the day’s challenges to our thinking about trust, suggesting that far from people being less trusting than they had been in the past, they remain extraordinarily generous with their trust.

He also discussed the long dominance of Milton Friedman’s ideas about the primacy of shareholder value, and said this had made the relationship between business and society more fragile.  Can a business ‘rebuild trust’? In his view it is not really clear what this means, let alone whether it is actually possible.

He went on to discuss the emerging social credit systems being developed in China. So among my thoughts from that day was – how long will it be before we adopt these systems in our own countries?

We already rate each other on Uber, Airbnb, Tinder, Grindr and Tripadvisor.  There are already reputation management tools available, such as www.mylife.com. It would not be a difficult task to simply combine the ratings apps with the rep tools.

Then the easiest way to introduce a Chinese-type system would be to create an app that allows us to offer rewards to our neighbours and colleagues. Companies would sponsor the rewards, we’d all give each other points for being a great friend/neighbour/colleague, taking points away if someone has loud parties next door, revvs their engine on the drive, or has a dog that chases your kids.

Whenever Chinese social credit systems are discussed there is instant revulsion from most western people, but a bit of consideration shows that we are already more than halfway there anyway, and our instinctive dislike of social credit systems is no greater than it was thirty years ago over CCTV, or the location device in a smartphone, both of which we got comfortable with pretty quickly.

Rupert Younger didn’t say that he expected social credit systems to be adopted in Europe any time soon, but set in the context of what he was saying, they don’t look far over the horizon to me.

Ten minutes of well-crafted input from a speaker and your mind starts buzzing. That’s the Bledcom effect.

Image courtesy of flickr user Terry Johnston

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