Building trust through communications

Learning from the finance sector

About the author

Jenny Owen prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo by Mark Higham @theartshot360 on Unsplash
Photo by Mark Higham @theartshot360 on Unsplash

Trust is an enigma. Trying to describe an emotion is difficult and everyone has subjective definitions which makes it tricky for PR professionals to navigate.

Jenny Owen

A Government Office for Science paper says trust is a cost-saving and time-saving phenomenon where both parties agree to figurative contracts. Francis Frei, a Harvard Business School Professor, details how trust is a combination of authenticity, logic and empathy. In a Ted Talk, business psychology researcher James Davis explains that trust is the willingness to be vulnerable and take risks with another party. Having sat through a fair number of presentations and read a plethora of papers, I think trust can be boiled down to this: trust is human, dynamic and personal.

So how do we build on this on a wider scale through PR practices, and in an increasingly technology-based world?

Trust encompasses a multitude of PR fields: reputation management, brand management, media relations, stakeholder engagement and crisis management.

As with many aspects of communications, determining the existing level of trust in your company and the overall sector is important as well as understanding the company’s values; without this research stage, the planning, implementation and evaluation portions of any PR campaign will wobble with unstable foundations.

To establish a company’s values, The Golden Circle, a tool suggested by Simon Sinek in an infamous Ted Talk, is a simple way to firstly confirm if you know the “why, how and what” values of a company, and serves as a reminder to keep the “why” at the centre of the communications campaign and messaging.

Show me the money

To best demonstrate the tumultuous journey of trust and distrust, I’ll pull examples from the least trusted sector in the UK – finance. The financial sector affects everyone’s lives as events like the Dot Com Bubble at the end of the 90’s and the 2008 Banking Crash have shown, but the public still continue to use banks every day as the sector is so integrated into our way of living.

The image of the financial sector is muddied with thoughts of men in pin-striped suits having lavish lunches surfacing, furthered by films like Wall Street in the 80’s and Wolf of Wall Street more recently; on a Google image search of “banker”, within the top ten images is Leonardo DiCaprio as criminal stockbroker Jordan Belfort from the 2013 film.

Recently, the BBC drama Industry shone light onto the “work-hard, play-hard” lifestyle of traders in the City of London, potentially cementing the existing attitudes of the financial sector with the general public. Over 80% of respondents in a YouGov/Cambridge paper said that “bankers are greedy and get paid too much”, and over half agreed that City of London workers do not behave honestly. Bernstein (1984) suggests that image cannot be manufactured, it can only be perceived.

Brand management can still build trust even if your sector’s image is tarnished. Knox and Bicherton (2003) press the importance for brand managers to look at the current image of an organisation and compare it to future competition; this continuous self-analysis is a regular theme with many PR models and theories, and helps to keep on top of changing audiences and messages. When using Sinek’s Golden Circle, consider Corporate Branding (2011) which suggests that stakeholders choose between brands based on a small number of characteristics so it’s best to form a brand promise from two or three memorable values. Sometimes an image or logo is enough to stir up emotions related to a company and remind stakeholders about the level of trust they hold with the firm.

(You’ve got me feeling) Emotions

Emotion is essential to gaining trust. We all remember the sense of responsibility we felt when opening a bank account as a young person, the joy of receiving pocket money and what seemed like the endless possibilities a pound from the tooth fairy could buy. TSB research shows that 2/5 Brits use the same bank account their parents chose for them in childhood. More specifically to PR, empathy or “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” is the effective emotion.

Neuroscientific research has suggested that humans are unable to make decisions without emotions, which is why it’s so critical in communications and brand management; in financial communications and personal finance commentary, you’ll often see mention of “hard-earned cash,” or “lifelong savings,” or “nest egg”, all tapping at readers’ personal values and why they save money in the first place.

In the four elements of persuasion (the communicator, the message, how the message is communicated and the audience) successful storytelling using empathy can cover all these elements if research of the audience and message is effective.

Pixley (2012) explains that financial companies and structures rarely embrace the emotional side of finance which creates impersonal trust, and as Pixley describes it, “Impersonal trust is the emotional serpent in the Eden of assumed rationality”.

Do you trust me?

When unpicking the psychology of trust, Anne Bockler-Raettig determined that trust is decided in milliseconds; when meeting others, it’s determined by their faces, signals of authority, and hearing what others have to say about them. What others think of someone and believing prior knowledge over what is presented in front of you is where reputation sits. If you’ve never met someone before but you’ve heard another person talking about how they’re a great leader, you’re trusting the hear-say instinctively to prepare yourself and already starting to build a reputation for the person you’re about to meet. This also applies to companies, even if we’ve never heard of them before, let alone used their services. Corporate reputation, as noted by Balmer (2001), is “the enduring perception held of an organisation, held by an individual, group or network.”

Companies with a good corporate reputation will likely be viewed as providing more value, will be more trusted and will eventually build loyalty, but this involves more than dealing with risks. Building a good experience for stakeholders and providing them with relevant and accurate information are two of the main tools for developing a good corporate reputation.

Do you trust them?

The Edelman Trust Barometer has for years given sectors an excellent benchmark for trust which is invaluable in the research stage of PR planning. For the financial sector, the report states the most credible employee voice is the company’s technical expert like a spokesperson, over an academic expert, CEO or “someone like you”. Perhaps using a spokesperson who knows the sector technically and has a great knowledge of a company’s values can offer information which is genuinely helpful to stakeholders rather than a CEO or someone deemed “corporate” who is thought to be peddling products.

Employees were found to be a helpful tool in trusting a financial firm – 81% of employees working in the financial sector trusted their employer, which is the most trusting audience surveyed.

But the benefit of a happy workforce is also reflected externally as 77% of all surveyed agreed that how a company treats its employees was the best indicator of its level of trust.

Away from employees, Cialdini’s Social Proof Theory (1984) was put to the test in the lead up to Northern Rock’s collapse in 2007; the theory is that when people are not sure how to react in a new scenario, they will start copying others and take their lead, trusting them based on feeling uncertainty themselves, spotting similarities in situations and perceiving others as having particular knowledge about the situation.

Although the firm was in financial difficulties, the panic amongst customers grew as hundreds of people queued to withdraw their savings from what they had thought was a trusted company. A year after the collapse of Northern Rock and several other seemingly prestigious banks, only 46% of the general public found high street banks trustworthy.

The Social Proof Theory can be used to build trust by creating communities and networks. We generally trust when we surround ourselves with people who believe in similar values. By making a company’s values clear in messaging, stakeholders will find it simpler to connect their values with a company and begin to build trust.

Does not compute

Computerisation has almost inevitably eroded trust of the financial sector. People who invest their money and are not professionals think the system is rigged against them, and the Dot Com Bubble, which was based around the rise of computerisation and website booms, was an example where insiders and professional fund managers got out of these stocks early and normal folks were left scrambling to sell on a colossal downturn in the market. The Edelman Barometer suggests that people trust older, more established products over newer innovations; in the financial services, Bitcoin and Robo-advice are actively distrusted, both of which came into popularity only a few years ago, whereas the most trusted services was first seen in the 50s – credit cards.

Until the 70s, information was slow to pass on and difficult to obtain, but the rise of computerisation, emails and social media have sped up access to information, making analysis and decision-making by stakeholders almost instant across all sectors, not just the financial sector.  Nudge Theory is a subtle change using positive reinforcement to ultimately change behaviours. Frequently used by marketing teams, it can involve asking the same question but with slight changes to the architecture of the language or approach. A 2016 paper in the UK showed that nudge theory in auto-enrolment increased the use of a workplace pension by 37%, a huge bump in participation.

Computerisation has seen the rise of nudge theory in communications as well as targeted articles, and potentially to our detriment internet filters and bubbles which can stunt the path of older persuasive theories/models.

As a company grows, humanity and therefore often trust is diminished; computerisation isn’t a substitute for human interaction.

Press’ pressing problem

Reuters’ Digital News report suggests trust in the news has fallen more than 20% since 2015 despite a recent boom in people consuming news due to pandemic announcements. The UK public is interested in the news at the moment, providing a massive captive audience to influence. 76% of those who took part in the UK report prefer news which has no particular point of view or political sway, exposing a desire for impartial information. Currently broadcasters are deemed the most trustworthy compared to digitally-born news brands and tabloids, arcing back to the established over newer platforms argument. An OfCom News Consumption report for 2020 reinforced this point, finding that people get their news less from social media partly due to a decrease in trust from the sources.

This is a difficult environment to navigate when the public’s interest in news and authenticity is questioned. To build this trust, it’s key to review current methods for communicating and keep up to date with changes to trends, developing continuous reflection. Stakeholder mapping and having a clear image of both your stakeholders and the company’s values will be essential here as well as without these, it’s hard to measure your own activities against the media landscape.

Trust takeaways

Trust starts with knowing the company’s values and having a clear understanding of stakeholders. As PR professionals, we must have a firm grip on what we’re communicating and to whom, otherwise we’re just performing a speech on stage whilst the audience is mingling at the bar during the intermission.

Don’t shy away from showing empathy or a human perspective – although detailing the company’s values and messaging is important, connecting with people from the start is crucial and the most effective way to do this is through a dynamic, two-way conversation. Trust is offering and reciprocating which we cannot take for granted as reputation and trust takes a long time to build up but only a moment to falter.