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Trust in your organization's future: building trust inside and out is a key part of the communicator's role as the corporate conscience.

In his book Trust ... From Sophocles to Spin (Icon Books, 2004), prominent British academic Kieron O'Hara considers trust the most vital political and business issue of our times. Illustrating the scope of the issue and the global impact of declining trust, he commented in a speech at the Deloitte Leaders Forum in Toronto in June 2005: "The EU constitution is a treaty that needs to be ratified by 25 countries. France and Holland have both rejected it in recent referendums. This is actually a massive rejection of the political elite, a lack of trust in the leadership."

A growing loss of confidence in organizations, their leaders and communication is well documented in the media and in such recent research as the Edelman 2005 Annual Trust Barometer and a 2003 Towers Perrin study called "Enhancing Corporate Credibility: Is It Time to Take the Spin out of Employee Communications?" But let's look on the bright side: Trust is highly valued by the leaders of many high-performance organizations who clearly see the connections between trustworthy, values-based communication and customer loyalty and employee engagement. We talked to leaders and communicators in several such organizations to discover insights into and best practices for building trust with key stakeholders, as well as how to make communication a pivotal part of the process.

Isadore Sharp, founder, CEO and chairman of the Four Seasons hotel chain, attributes much of his organization's success in building trust with employees and customers to communicating and practicing the Golden Rule. "We can't communicate effectively across a trust gap.... So I sat down with our public relations director and detailed a formal credo based on the Golden Rule--the cornerstone of what would be called our corporate culture," he explains. "In essence, to treat others--all others, customers, employees, partners, suppliers--as we ourselves would want to be treated. Even back then [in 1982], such credos were common, though seldom believed. What was new was that we enforced it. Senior managers who couldn't walk the talk were all winnowed out within a few years."

Adds Phil Blake, president of Bayer Inc.: "It's all about consistency that you will always perform according to the contract of understanding. You're doing the right things for the right reasons and what's best for all."

Connecting strategy to action

Today's challenges call for direct approaches. "Communication connects strategy to action," says Maneesh Mehta, deputy managing partner for global clients and markets at Deloitte. "Without strong, consistent and relentless communications, corporate strategy cannot be put into play, and building trust is not possible."

"Trust is a concept that is so fundamentally important yet so hard to define, earn and keep," said Deloitte Canada CEO Alan MacGibbon at the Deloitte Leaders Forum. "What takes years to build can be destroyed in a careless second." He should know: Deloitte, like many other accounting firms, has recognized the fallout from so many corporate ethics scandals, and he stressed the need for leaders to initiate change and take decisive action. "Moral and ethical leadership is perhaps the single most important contributor to success over the long haul," he said.

Corporate communicators have long capably served as the ethics stewards and corporate consciences of their organizations, mastering that delicate and vital task of balancing corporate goals with public expectations. Leadership, values, accountability, communication-building trust requires action and communication. So how can communicators help their leaders and organizations make this happen?

Start with policy and planning

A good place to start is a communication policy that connects your organization's business mission and objectives with the what, why and how of communication. A 2005 IABC Gold Quill Award recipient, Leticia Narvaez, director of communications and public affairs for Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) de Mexico, points out that her company has a formal communication policy that guides communication with internal and external stakeholders. "We developed it and aligned it with the mission and goals for the company," she says.

An exemplary communication policy embeds and outlines actions for this mantra of trustworthy organizations: You can trust us to say what we do and then do what we say. That goes a long way toward strengthening relationships with key stakeholders that ensure an organization's viability and success. Another 2005 Gold Quill recipient, Jill Nash, vice president of corporate communication for Gap Inc., sums it up this way: "Trust is the foundation on which strong relationships are built. A company is nothing more than a series of relationships."

Make sure the policy makes explicit the commitment of the organization to transparent and trustworthy communication with key stakeholders (e.g., employees, customers, investors, media, government, etc.); the principles behind it; specific accountabilities, processes and procedures; and evaluation methods to determine whether the policy is working.

Don't fret over length. A communication policy should be as long as it needs to be to cover all that should be included. One of the most comprehensive ones we've ever seen--and it is truly a work of art--is the communication policy within the Duke Energy Code of Business Ethics (www This code covers more than 25 topical areas and multiple screens, and is also a wonderful model to use when deciding what to include in your own.

But shorter is fine, too. One of our clients recently put in place a four-page policy that covers all their key topics. Some topics that commonly appear in communication policies include a statement of practice, general responsibilities, the public release of information, media relations procedures, the distribution of information to internal audiences, and dealing with confidential information.

Capturing feedback, measuring trust

The second step is to put in place formal research activities that will enable you to determine confidently your strategic direction for communication, and informal research activities that will enable you to periodically take the pulse of key audiences. What you measure is as important as how you measure it.

Deloitte's Mehta comments: "To see whether you've succeeded in building trust, what's important is to measure the drivers of trust: trustworthy leadership; open, frequent and credible communication; and consistency in walking the talk."

"The bottom line is that measurement of all business elements is important," adds Tamara Gillis, Ed.D., ABC, chair of the communications department at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. "Trust is highly influenced by the behaviors of the organization. So it should be measured regularly in formal and informal ways so the company can use the findings to be proactive."

On the formal side are, of course, the comprehensive communication audit, coordinated by communication staff, and various surveys involving internal and external audiences, coordinated in conjunction with other functional areas, usually the HR, quality management and/or strategy development departments. These should be conducted by external research companies on a regularly scheduled basis--triennially for communication audits, and annually or biennially for key stakeholders (such as customers, employees, media, government, investors and analysts, and community groups).

Audits and surveys provide rich opportunities to capture feedback on and measure trust. There are even specialty research tools devoted exclusively to trust measurement, including an impressive one available from IABC: Measuring Organizational Trust, by Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ph.D.; and one we have used with clients and can attest to: Interpersonal Trust Surveys, by Guy L. De Furia, Ph.D.

In any case, make sure you include questions specifically related to trust. Writing in Workforce Management magazine, Samuel Greengard points out, "Over the years, employee surveys have become more sophisticated. By asking the right questions, it is possible to gain insights into how employees might behave. For example, low employee satisfaction levels or mistrust of a company are often a harbinger of poor attendance, high turnover, and job actions or strikes."

On the informal side, any large- or small-group program activity can provide an opportunity for pulse-taking regarding trust and trustworthiness--immediately during face-to-face activities, and as a follow-up in the case of electronic communication activities.

"Our corporate internal evaluation process is a very useful tool to measure the trust of employees at all levels," says MSD's Narvaez. "Three hundred sixty-degree feedback is done twice a year. We also organize face-to-face meetings with sales representatives and administrative staff to collect suggestions to improve trust among employees." This is in addition to the formal internal survey of employees that MSD conducts annually.

Whether you incorporate a few questions into surveys dealing specifically with the perceived trustworthiness of your leaders and your organization, direct some or all of focus group content to the topic of trust, or conduct a separate organizational trust survey, the objective is to seize any and all opportunities to test the rise and fall of trust levels in your organization.

"It is incumbent on the CEO to understand the psychology of the role," says Bayer President Blake, who each year conducts a large number of staff town hall meetings and makes himself readily available to sales reps at sales meetings. He is also a firm believer in walkabouts. "You have to set up the systems that will allow you to hear what your people are really saying in order to set up realistic expectations. Because above all, you must not ,just tell people what they want to hear. You must be able to say the tough things, while helping people to understand."

Putting in place a communication policy and appropriate research activities helps you set direction and determine what you should do. Sooner rather than later, however, it's time to act. That means putting in place the programs that will build and sustain trust in your organization and your leadership.

Building trust: The role of the communicator

How should communicators see their role when it comes to this? Gap Inc.'s Nash says that "communication can help build trust--between peers, employees and leaders and between a company and its external audiences--that facilitates growth. To create a trusting environment, communications must be authentic, two-way, open and honest. Our role is to ensure that we continue to strive to achieve such communications." [For more on Gap Inc.'s program, see "Case in Point" in the November-December 2005 issue of CW.]

Narvaez sums up her team's role this way: "We are the facilitators to help build the corporate reputation among external audiences and to develop the strategies to build trust, always linked to the real motivation, which is to act as a socially responsible company.

"Inversion Patrimonial para Empleados MSD ["Wealth Investment for MSD Employees," the company's new retirement/ investment plan] is indeed a trust-building program," she adds. "It is a program which has real benefits for our employees and heightens awareness that MSD is interested in the well-being and quality of life of employees in the short term and, even more important, in the long term."

Once communicators have taken all these actions, they will see that some vital connections have been made. Strategic intent has been linked to a meaningful communication policy, which in turn is linked to actionable research and pulse-taking, which is linked to innovative program development, implementation and measurement.

Take on the challenge

But there's still one critical link to make and one more critical step to take. Communicators must embrace trust building as a core part of their long-standing role as the corporate conscience and boldly champion the value of building trust throughout their organizations.

Knowing well the enormous power of candid face-to-face communication, we sometimes hesitate to speak up and counsel our senior management team about effective trust-building behavior. We must consistently--and persuasively--champion the value of trust, trust-building activities and the trust-building impact of active leadership participation.

To respond totally to the most vital business issue of our times, communicators must take on one of the key challenges of the 21st century. It all comes down to building trust by connecting strategy to action to leadership commitment.

Ralph Beslin, ABC, is president of Beslin Communication Group Inc., a firm devoted to assessment and performance improvement in communication. He is a past president of IABC/Toronto.

Chitra Reddin, Ph.D., is president of Communications Solutions, a management consulting firm focused on communication policy and strategy. She is a past president of IABC/Atlantic Canada.
COPYRIGHT 2006 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Reddin, Chitra
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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