Trust Inc. — Why companies must take a stand for society in this age of crisis
Wherever you are in the world it’s impossible to ignore or not be influenced by the multiple crises now shaping the planet. Even as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic and confront the everyday reality of racism in our societies we also are increasingly aware of the imminent climate emergency that threatens well-being all over the planet.
Over the last couple of days, as I considered the state our world has got itself in, I have found myself revisiting the research for my recent book Trust Inc. When it was published 18 months ago its subhed was “How business wins respect in a social media age.” Today, while that is still relevant (given the role social media has played in shaping the current landscape), it could easily be expanded to read “How companies must lead and win respect in the age of crisis.”
That’s because the solutions the book addresses all relate to the ways business can (and must) help tackle the pandemic, solve the climate crisis as well as the many other environmental, social and governance challenges we face.
With this in mind I’ve decided to share a series of excerpts from Trust Inc. that outline the challenges business and society face, explain why companies have no choice but to lead and offer best practice examples of companies doing just that.
First up is an excerpt from the book’s introduction — setting the scene for why there is a crisis of trust in business and why companies need to respond and prove themselves if they want to stay relevant. More will follow over the coming days.
I hope this community will find them relevant and useful as we all confront a global crisis of trust.
Excerpt 1: Trust Inc. — Why companies have to take a stand for society
Which companies do you really care about? Is there one you simply couldn’t do without?
It’s a question that we rarely ask ourselves — so prevalent and dominant are companies and brands in our everyday lives. But while we’re dependent on the products and services that enable our modern existence, do we really care who makes them?
That should worry every single business in an online age where costs are slashed, profits margins squeezed by technological efficiencies and where entire sectors can be disrupted by outsiders with the right algorithm.
This pace of change would be hard to navigate even in the most certain of times. But this is anything but the most certain of times. Instead, our modern world currently faces a serious crisis of trust, or lack of.
That crisis of trust affects every part of society. Our collective faith in government and politics continues to be tested amid allegations of cyber manipulation of national and regional elections in the US and Europe. Our faith in the media is polarised along political lines to such a degree that politicians can seek to vilify media companies they don’t like as “fake news.” And, increasingly, the public’s confidence in brands and corporations is eroding, partly as the more general suspicions of authority rub off on business but also because of a fundamental shift in the way that the public receives information and shapes their opinions.
One of the biggest forces behind this shift and erosion of trust is social media — the communication revolution (now two decades old) that has given every person a voice, a community to connect and learn from, and, increasingly, a mini bully pulpit to hold companies, government and the media to account. Time and time again over the last 20 years social media connected communities and platforms have challenged the hegemony of governments (as in the case of the Arab Spring), they have held law enforcement and the military to account on human rights failures (as the Black Lives Matters movement has shown) and they have called out companies and brands about faulty products, rotten or cynical customer services and arrogant governance.
Yet, even as social media has helped give people a clearer, more informed view of the world around them it has also been manipulated by some forces to confuse and distort people’s sense of reality — not least in the political sphere. Our increasing reliance on the social media content shared by friends turbo-charged the political information and opinion bubble we all naturally tend towards. With our ability to cherry pick the information we want to receive, and our tendency to share content only from friends with similar points of view as ours the news we consume often does little but reinforce our established political worldview.
The social media-fueled crisis of trust in business and society comes at a time when companies must also confront a series of migraine-inducing sustainability challenges that will affect how they do business in the future and influence society’s trust in them.
Today’s companies must plan for growing urbanisation and automation in society. They must secure access to raw materials, manage energy and offer useful products in a world being defined by finite natural resources and where climate change is becoming an overarching business risk. They must maintain and nurture employees when a generation of young people are choosing to, or being forced to, look globally for work. And, as the world of transportation, banking and even healthcare is discovering, they must remain successful even as technologies like the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing and Blockchain allow new types of competitors to challenge and disrupt their business.
In many ways then, companies find themselves facing greater threats to the future of their business and to society than ever before at exactly the time when they need to regain the trust of a new type of connected and informed consumer.
How then can companies win back the trust of the public and society? The answer, Trust Inc. will argue, is through embracing and integrating sustainability throughout business while demonstrating that commitment through communication.
Just a few years ago most corporate communicators and marketers would have dismissed the notion that consumers care about sustainability. They would cite studies that showed “ethical” consumers made up just a small portion of total sales, and that mainstream shoppers wouldn’t pay a premium for “green” products. Surely it was obvious that the public didn’t care about sustainable sourcing and supply chains, never mind ethical working practices? These were the sort of dull achievements best left for corporate communication channels.
But isn’t the price we pay for products a question of sustainability? Consider, for example, the cost of growing the crops and raising the livestock to supply the food we consume. How can farmers and food workers make a living when the prices in the supermarkets are so cheap? What about the reliance on ingredients like corn sugar and salt to boost the taste of low cost food? Are these foods sustaining us or making us ill? The same core questions can be asked of the detergents and soap we use, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive and the services we depend on to run our modern life.
These are all sustainability questions that consumers ask everyday online and offline, and which affect their purchasing decisions. What’s more many of them either work for major companies or have families and friends who do. So working conditions, tolerance of diversity and gender equality also have particular resonance and influence their opinion of companies and brands.
The actions of concerned (and connected consumers) already are having an impact. They are prompting fast food companies to change their menus. They are forcing food producers to take a stand on genetically modified crops and retailers to shift to organic supply chains. They are pushing household and personal goods manufacturers to use non-toxic components in cleaning products. They are holding apparel makers to account over working conditions in their factories and those of their suppliers. And they are putting pressure on the world of business to enforce tolerance of people and to offer the equal opportunities to succeed. All of these issues sit at the heart of sustainability in business and influence people’s buying decisions. It’s just when real people talk about them they don’t use the language of corporate sustainability.
If business is to win back the trust of society it will have to show it cares and communicate it in a way the world can understand.
The next excerpt will explore how social media created a culture that forced business to take societal concerns seriously.