Crisis, what crisis? The truth about trust

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We hear constant noise from politicians, business leaders and the media about the so-called “crisis of trust”. Where does the truth lie?

[15-minute read] Robert Phillips, author of Trust Me, PR is Dead and co-founder of Jericho Chambers, argues that the crisis of trust is lazily used as a proxy to mask a more profound crisis of leadership and purpose. Robert explores the genesis and symptoms of the current condition – the weakening relevance of 20th century institutions;  wilful blindness to the injustices of globalisation; and the failing obsession with celebrating shareholder value over human value. As well as scrutinising the trust data (with surprising results), Robert suggests new models for business leaders to think, behave and communicate differently in the “new normal”. Are we, he asks, living in a post-truth age or a post-ethical one? New operating principles are required for business: activism and co-production; vulnerability and dissent. As trust now flows horizontally between networks, the future – argues Robert – can only be negotiated, not imposed.

This article is adapted from a series of talks given during October 2017, including: the Employment Lawyers Association 5th Transatlantic Conference; The Crowd Forum; several private corporate clients; and University of Cambridge, Judge Business School.


Crisis, what crisis?

The truth about trust

What connects a long-dead Italian communist, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, the President of the United States and a stem of ginger?

Over the course of this talk (or article), we will find out.

We’ll also explore the so-called “crisis of trust”; explode some of its myths; and look at why there’s no point trying to impose old order on new chaos.


Trust Me, PR is Dead – the journey

Five years ago, I embarked on a series of talks and debates about the future of communications and trust.

It was clear that tectonic plates were shifting within business, politics and society. “Trust”, then as now, was under huge scrutiny and pressure – already moving away from institutions and morphing into new forms.

I was about to publish my book, “Trust Me, PR is Dead”, in which I argued that greater chaos was still to come and the fragile condition in which we found ourselves would become more fragile yet.

The way forward, I argued, was to embrace the chaos – and meet an asymmetrical world with asymmetrical leadership. Business as Usual was not an option.

I had recently enjoyed an epiphany and walked out of my job as EMEA CEO of the world’s largest Public Relations firm.

PR had become the problem, not the solution to “better trust”. PR firms hired to create an aura of trust around people or brands were, I realized, fundamentally untrustworthy.

My resignation was all the more poignant given that the firm in question, Edelman, is famed for its Trust Barometer. I contributed to it for a number of years. I spent a lot of time thinking, researching & writing about truth, trust and public engagement.

Back in 2013, I could see what was coming next – the anger and the activism and what we now happily call the post-truth or post-trust age – or the new normal.


Less than two years ago, I started using this image of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

Nine months out from the Brexit referendum – and back when the idea of President Trump was little more than bizarre fantasy – it used to get a big laugh.

After June 2016, that laugh became a mere murmur. By the time of the US presidential election, the images were met with stony silence.

We are living in the new normal.

The rise of networks and the march of technology changed everything. A fundamentally different approach to corporate and political leadership is now required, together with new operating principles in the workplace.

Trust has dramatically changed direction: it no longer forced down from authorities and institutions but instead flows sideways – not just between colleagues and friends, but also between total strangers.

And that is what this talk (or article) is about. We will look briefly at how we arrived at the new normal but, more importantly, what it means for future corporate behaviour and, the subject du jour, Public Trust.




Welcome to the new normal – or the interregnum

Most of us are familiar with the clichés around technology and the speed with which “disruptors” have emerged.


But today’s “new normal” is not just down to Silicon Valley. Nor is it simply an allergic reaction to the Global Financial Crisis and various scandals.

It is longer-term and systemic:

– a failure to respond to the weakening relevance of Fordism and the post-war settlement

– mapped against global mega-trends

– driven by technology, networks and individual empowerment.

It is the product of our willful blindness to a divided, some say broken, society.

Once mighty institutions are no longer fit for purpose: from global corporations to political parties, regulators and “old” media.

Old rules are increasingly irrelevant.

Antonio Gramsci, the long-dead Italian political theorist, identified the interregnum – when the old is not yet dead and the new has yet to be fully born. This is where we are now. In this time, Gramsci wrote, “morbid symptoms persist.”

It is almost comforting to think of Trump and Brexit as morbid symptoms. They are the manifestations of our condition, not its causes. They are filling a vacuum that has built up over 50 years.


Our failures can be quantified in many ways

  • a blind faith in globalization
  • falling levels of real income and life expectancy in the so-called developed world
  • huge wealth gaps and injustices between the global north and south.

Take your pick.

I warned in 2011 about the dangers of failing to listen to the message of Occupy – “we are the 99%” – but we dismissed them as the militant unwashed. My warning was to the corporate world as well as to political leaders.

A generation of “have-nots” – many trapped in in-work poverty and with falling living standards – finally found their voice.

This has obvious and profound implications for how we discuss and analyse “public trust” and why real work and initiatives around, for example, social mobility and inclusion is so important.


The popular anger that we see now will continue for some time, including in the workplace.

Management guru Charles Handy writes in his book The Second Curve that, in any organisation, 80% of the workforce is disengaged and does not care. 25% of the 80% would actively sabotage the organisation they work for. IBM reports that the majority of virus attacks are started from within a company.

Technology and networks fuel activism and dissent. Whistleblowers are everywhere. Disruption is permanent.


Is trust dead? 

Trust is, however, not dead in this new normal. Nor, as we shall see, is this the age of dis-trust.

The crisis of trust is in fact a crisis of leadership

CEOs and politicians happily cite “crisis of trust” as lazy proxy for failures in their own leadership.

  • They use incendiary language
  • They are seduced by headlines and soundbites
  • Their arguments are not supported by the data.

This is my caution to you and my best advice: do not be misled by endless talk of the “crisis of trust”. There are substantial issues to be addressed, for sure, but the crisis is not exactly what it seems.


The language around “trust” is hugely problematic.

First, “trust” itself is difficult to define.

What do we really mean by trusting someone to “do the right thing?”. My right thing might be your wrong thing.

Why would we want “more trust” from someone we never really trusted?

Historically, many of those demanding more trust, like politicians & journalists, have never been trusted anyway.

Second, how can we talk about “trust in media” when not all media are equal?

Is Facebook the same as the Financial Times – or Breitbart? Of course, not.

Ditto when we talk about “trust in government” – how do we compare, say, Ireland or Sweden like-for-like with Russia and the United States, or with Germany or Saudi Arabia? These are silly comparisons.

Take a look at Uber’s recent problems in London. 1 million petitioners “trusted” Uber’s customer experience; but a handful of regulators and politicians trusted Uber the company not at all … and revoked its License to Operate. Who really trusts Uber?

To say, as many do, we don’t trust banks when we all still have bank accounts is clearly nonsense.

Likewise, that we don’t trust “experts” when – to paraphrase philosopher Onora O’Neill – we would not go to a Dry Cleaners to have a grumbling appendix removed.

Third, we fail to distinguish between “trust” and “trustworthiness” – a point also well-made by O’Neill.

This, for me, lies at the heart of the trust issue.

Trustworthiness is built on three pillars: honesty, competence and reliability. This makes it clearer and tangible; personal and reciprocal. It is a critical distinction for professional service firms and those dealing with clients and regulators, as well as academics and media.

Would I buy a product that is not reliable from someone who is not honest? Probably not. Would I even trust my best friend to post a letter for me, if I knew they were unreliable?


 Next – trust is not a message; it’s an outcome. (I have said this repeatedly over the years)

Politicians and CEOs still love to talk trust. I interviewed over 200 of them for my book. A lot of what they say is bullshit.

“Better PR” is not the answer for “better trust”. Trustworthiness the result of what you do, not what you say. Actions, not words.

Many leaders – the media, too – are also conveniently nostalgic about an “age of trust” that never existed – a fantasy past, where institutions demanded trust from the masses. This was always a false imposition, although those in charge convinced themselves otherwise and no-one had the technology to challenge them. There’s no going back to somewhere that was never real. We do not live in a Mary Poppins world. There is no magic wand to restore trust, once lost.

In this sense, trust is hard-fought, hard-earned and hard-won, every day.

In the new normal, trust is forever fragile – flowing in different directions.


Truth in data

The truth is that global trust numbers haven’t shifted substantially. Scores are mostly constant despite the disruption.

We don’t trust government or business or the judiciary significantly more or less than we did 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.



Gallup’s data on Trust in 14 (US) institutions shows that trust was not much higher in 1994 than it was in 2015. 36% had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of trust in those institutions in 1994 compared to 35% in 2017.

Set against a longer-term average and set properly to scale, even Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows a similar pattern, despite the excitable language and dramatic diagrams used by my former boss at Davos every year.



It’s easy to spin the numbers of course.


We don’t trust people any more or less to tell the truth than we did thirty or forty years ago.

At no point since 1983 has more than a quarter of the general public trusted politicians to tell the truth.

In this sense, Trump, Johnson and Farage are performing to type – though more aggressively and noisily via a more fragmented media, in a more febrile political world.


Patterns for those with higher levels of trust to tell the truth have remained consistent as have those for the average person in the street – always somewhere in the middle.


Truth and trust, though, are two sides of the same coin.

It is therefore self-evident that those who corrode truth, undermine trust.

Hence my point about the more profound crisis of leadership.

Lying leaders – or even those assume to lie – are part of the problem. But it’s been going on for years.


It’s interesting to observe media noise about “trust”.

“Post Truth” was 2016 “word of the year”. Several books quickly followed. As the crisis of leadership has deepened, so the talk about trust and truth has exploded. This is largely where the so-called crisis stems from: constant noise.

Donald Trump, with his non-stop screams of “fake news” has not helped. But his accusations and lies are no more believable than generations of predecessors. He has simply weaponised them in pursuit of power and ego. Twitter is his channel of choice.


Trust in strangers

We do however trust strangers more – following the march of technology and emergence of the sharing economy.

This is driving new behaviours of peer-to-peer trust, away from traditional institutions – the “old” in Gramsci’s interregnum.

Academic and author Rachel Botsman calls this a “new currency of trust”. People now feel safe sharing their homes and their cars with total strangers. Trust today, Rachel argues, is “distributed”.

What can we take from this?

First, we trust real people – as we see it, people like us – before we trust companies or organisations – essentially abstract, inhuman entities – who seek to control or monetise us.

Second, trust now flows horizontally across networks, not vertically, forced down from institutions.

Third, we should be conscious of the impending impact of the generational shift – fragility increases as we move, with technology, with the digital natives.

This shift will become even more pronounced as we dive deeper into the world of blockchain.

According to a 2017 Deloitte report, Blockchain is the new “gatekeeper in the trust economy”, representing (another) “remarkable power shift from large, centralised trust agents to the individual”.

Some pundits are linking the emergence of Blockchain technology to the early days of the World Wide Web – it will become “the internet of value”.


If the crisis of trust is mostly fictional and hyperbolic today it may be real and exponential tomorrow.

Gen Z – born between 1995 and 2000 – is deeply distrustful of establishment institutions – the failed 20th century settlement.


“Trust” levels are already dropping from generation to generation in the world of politics.

Only one in 10 Gen Z’ers say they trust the government to do the right thing. This is half the percentage of millennials who feel this way. Gen Z feels that politicians don’t care about ordinary people, and believes that the rules of the game are rigged.

Only 6% of Gen Z trust big corporations to do the right thing, as opposed to 60% of Baby Boomers & Millennials.

When asked: what comes to mind when you think of global corporations, they volunteer words such as: exploitative, selfish, arrogant, greedy, cheating and untrustworthy.

Economist Noreena Hertz calls this group Generation K – after Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games:

  • anxious and isolated
  • digitally native
  • a post-crash, post-ISIS generation, facing the automation of their jobs
  • trusting of no-one
  • fighting the ugly oppression of The Capitol.

They are our future. They are entering the workforce now.


 First, principles

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, I argued for re-thinking leaders as social activists and companies/ organisations as social movements. This need is acute – because Brexit and Trump, even Germany’s AFD, got there first.

We need to stop trying to build trust in the wrong places with the wrong people and the wrong institutions, on the wrong issues.

There is no point trying to impose old order on new chaos – like trying to power an electric car with diesel.

New operating principles are required for the interregnum.

Instead of mitigating risk, embrace it.

Move from imposing simplicity and control, hierarchy and authority to negotiating complexity and activism; vulnerability and dissent.

Change with a changed world.

Co-produce strategies with the very stakeholders that we once sought to control – even those with whom we profoundly disagree. Strategies co-created with employees, customers and stakeholders build resilience and deliver successful outcomes.

And none of us can learn, if we do not listen.

Vulnerability to dissent builds greater trustworthiness.

This thinking runs to the heart of the work I do on a broad range of issues from digital futures and the world of work, to cities, housing and the built environment. The global Responsible Tax programme, ran on behalf of KPMG, is a great example of this thinking in practice.

Risk is not best mitigated by hiding behind PR people or lawyers. Fragility is not best met with a sledgehammer.


The twentieth-century obsession with measurement is a huge part of the problem. We have ended up measuring everything, except what actually matters.

Focus on accountability instead: to all stakeholders, citizens and society – not to management targets and profit.

Many of the big professional and advusory firms struggle with this – but even the ICAEW and other institutions are starting to make the shift.


  Think Differently

I suggest we think about 5 things to deal with the chaos/ disruption that is upon us:

  • Think about trustworthiness instead of trust: honesty, competence & reliability
  • Think about better (business) models – flatter, less managerial, more open, mutualised
  • Think about human value before shareholder value – people and planet before profit
  • Think about accountability, not measurement
  • Think about where we can Just Do Something – where we can build coalitions to heal the wounds of a divided, disrupted world.

There is a whole other talk to cover these five points! For shorthand purposes, though….

Examples are emerging of some organisations making the transition and it is not just about tree-huggers or strange holocracies. Many operate to scale and make decent profits, too.

US apparel firm Patagonia was of course an early poster-child of the transition – with Unilever not far behind, with its Sustainable Living Plan.

Think about banks like Sweden’s Handlesbanken or the Netherlands’ Triodos. Look at how Buurtzorg has revolutionised patient care in the Netherlands and has extended its footprint across Europe, the US and Asia.

It started with 8 nurses working together in 2008 and now has 10,000 people worldwide. Buurtzorg has cut the cost of healthcare by 40% in Holland, where 900 frontline nurses are backed up by no more than 50 administrators.

You don’t need to be “new” or tech-enabled to think differently. The UK’s John Lewis Partnership dates back to revolutionary thinking in 1909 – on everything from “workers’ councils” to encouraging dissent.

John Lewis’ trust ratings continue to lead, while its absentee scores are less than half that of its competitive set, as is its staff churn.

Meanwhile, the co-operative movement encompasses 2.6 million businesses, 1.3 billion members and close to 15% of the global economy.

There is a growing evidence set of organisations that already combine many of these “Think Differently” principles – and are more trustworthy as a result, demonstrated through tangible metrics.


Communicate Differently

The new normal requires different strategies for communication.

Here are seven – updated since they first appeared in 2013. There’s another whole session (or talk) required to explore these in detail.

We’ve talked about the chaos (1) and co-producing strategies with wise crowds (6). Another way to communicate differently in the age of disruption is: (5) “Be The Media”.

Every company and every individual can be a media company. Just look at Donald Trump. He does this with huge success. No need to rely on CNN or the BBC.

Donald is behaving the future. We can do this, too – either as individuals or as brands.

Above all else, though, it has to be all about: (7) Actions, not Words.

Constant proclamations on the need for greater “public trust” increasingly fall on deaf ears.

Many corporate leaders remain in constant danger of becoming yet another shouty voice, alongside the hand-wringers and usual suspects from politics and the media.

The more organisations talk about the need for “more trust”, the less believable they become.

Barclays Chairman and former Kingfisher CEO, Sir Ian Cheshire agrees with this analysis. Corporates, he says, need to stop talking generically about public trust and responsible business. No-one would really advocate public dis-trust or irresponsible business anyway. Instead, he favours focused initiatives such as Kingfisher and the circular economy or Marks & Spencer Plan A or KPMG in the UK on social mobility. Purpose means nothing unless you actually do something.


Think gingerly

And so, the stem of ginger.

Ginger is a rhizome. Wikipedia tells us that a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, inter-being, intermezzo.”

Like Gramsci’s interregnum, this is a powerful metaphor for the world as it is now: mid-point, in transition, sprouting and chaotic.

Like a rhizome, we need to think non-linear and non-binary – embracing the chaos that engulfs us.

My personal “stem” lies with the common good; my “pinnacle” is a better, or flourishing, society. Some categorise this simply as “purpose” (another whole presentation).


A post-ethical age?

According to the late philosopher Tony Judt, “we are all children of the Greeks”.

The case for fairness, justice and tolerance has never gone away, he wrote, we have simply forgotten how to talk about it. He pointed not to a post-truth or post-trust age – but to a post-ethical one.

In Judt’s forgotten half-century, the ethical vacuum has been filled with ugly and disruptive forces, as we have seen, now accelerated by technology and networks.

If we are to build “better trust”, we need to build a better society. We should not be scared of using the term “common good” and need to liberate it from the political cross-fire.

Or, as the author and journalist Stefan Stern puts it: “if leaders want to be trusted more, there’s a simple way to start: don’t do bad things”.

Courageous leadership is required in this new normal.

Business School orthodoxy instead teaches endless case studies and mostly incremental thinking, before courage.

But incrementalism has failed us. Imaginative, courageous leaps are required.

“Courage”, wrote Samuel Johnson, “is the greatest of all virtues”….

If you haven’t courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others”.



Robert Phillips is author of Trust Me, PR is Dead (Unbound 2015) and co-founder, Jericho Chambers.

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