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Building Brands in an Era of Distrust

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A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn.

Trust is in crisis, with an inversion of influence underway, according to 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. This year’s survey showed “experts” are less trusted than “a person like me,” and trust in media has fallen drastically. At the same time, trust in CEOs is at an all-time low while peer-to-peer communication is rising quickly over multiple channels.

As communicators, what can we do to protect against activists, break through a crowded media landscape and tell authentic brand stories that resonate with key audiences?

A recent event in Boston, “Building Brands in an Era of Distrust: A Dialogue to Advance the Health of Your Company,” brought together an expert panel and a cross section of the healthcare industry to discuss ways to build and maintain trust in today’s environment of distrust.

Build Trust with Owned Content

Building brands is a long-term effort, according to Donnovan Andrews, founder & CEO of OVERTURE, a technology platform that promotes digital humanitarianism. Companies should ensure public access to free and reliable information on their owned channels. Over time, this body of work will build trust. Eric McNulty, director of research in the Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agreed, noting that owned content that demonstrates authenticity, leadership, and consistency will, over time, increase brand trust. However, he said that companies should be aware that people will react to their content based on pre-existing attitudes toward the organization and the industry.

Tell Authentic Stories

Companies and brands must tell authentic stories that resonate with audiences in real, human ways – through patient stories, for example, that go beyond the heartwarming to address the real-life experiences of people facing difficult diseases, said Kym White, global chair, health sector at Edelman. McNulty suggested that companies strive to always bring the conversation back to healthcare – not money, government or tax policy – since healthcare is an industry that makes lives better. Todd Ringler, managing director of U.S. Media at Edelman, noted that, too often, companies seek to gain attention at key moments then go silent; content that consistently engages audiences will best build trust over time.

Keep CSR at the Center

When companies keep their corporate social responsibility at the center of everything they do and speak with authority about core values, they will reap the rewards they deserve, Andrews suggested. Ringler noted the power of CSR in recruitment and retention; employees want to work for a company that makes the world better. McNulty agreed, encouraging companies to tell brand stories that demonstrate how they’re helping to solve human problems.

Prepare for Attacks

Today’s populist era requires a different approach to brand strategy. Although most companies attempt to tell rational, factual stories using data, today’s activists are adept at using emotion to incite action and sharing, force attention and demand accountability. Companies and brands must do their homework to know who their detractors are, how they operate, and how to mobilize their base, including employees, to tell more human and emotional stories. Communicators must work with the media to ensure the facts are correct but also help their companies accept “imperfect stories” that still get the word out.

Building a brand is difficult, but maintaining trust in that brand is even harder. As communicators, we play a vital role in both processes. By telling the human stories of our industry using strong corporate values as a beacon, we can evolve, promote and protect brands, no matter how the environment may shift.

Bruce Hayes is managing director, Health, Edelman New York.

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