Take a Cue From One of America’s Most Trusted Institutions … Business?

Trust in many institutions, such as the media and government, is in a deep decline, while businesses appear to be becoming trusted resources. Associations can learn from for-profit businesses—as long as they back up words with actions.

Institutional trust is at a low, but one type of entity is coming out ahead: business.

Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer survey [PDF] found that businesses are now the most trusted institution globally, with 61 percent of respondents backing them, a rate well above government (53 percent) and media (51 percent) and even outpacing nongovernmental organizations (57 percent).

The study found that people consider businesses to be both ethical and competent. (While NGOs were seen as more ethical, businesses were the only category of organization seen as competent by respondents.) Part of what’s driving this shift, per Edelman, is COVID-19, which significantly affected trust in the government and the media. While the start of the pandemic fostered trust in these organizations, that faded as the months wore on.

So what does this mean for associations, which often sit in a territory between businesses and NGOs in terms of the type of institution they represent? And how can we use the lessons on how the public regards businesses to help generate deeper trust in associations?

Keep Your Promises

Gary LaBranche, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute, noted that businesses emerging as trusted authorities reflects successful leadership.

“There’s an old saying: Trust is the residue of promises kept. It’s a result of keeping promises,” he said.

LaBranche compared the success of many businesses and associations with governmental bodies, which often struggle with gridlock and dysfunction.

“It’s easier for people to discount what the government is saying than to have trust in them; they haven’t had a record of performance,” he said. “Businesses and associations and other nonprofits, for example, have a better record of delivery.”

With some mission-based organizations struggling to live up to their ethos, such as some religious institutions, other groups built upon a mission–including associations–have an opportunity.

“Because of this vacuum of disappointment in so many institutions, and the fact that business, particularly, is trusted, we’re all thinking, ‘This has to be the last best hope for getting things done to ensure that we’re going to be living better, higher-quality lives and for accessibility and equality for all,’” LaBranche said.

Take Care When Speaking Out

Of course, uncovering the opportunity is one thing; it’s quite another to live up to that standard. After all, if a business or an association disappoints its stakeholders—whether staff members or the public—leaders may find their organization facing the same fate of declining trust.

“This is not a risk-free proposition,” LaBranche said. “It’s important that the company carefully assess what they stand for and clearly identify what they will engage with.”

There’s a growing public interest in seeing organizations step into political issues, but doing so brings an inherent risk of a misstep that could do more harm than good. LaBranche said organizations should carefully consider a decision to get involved in public discourse.

“You’ve got to take this very, very seriously. The stakes are high,” he said. “You’ve got shareholders, you’ve got employees, you’ve got consumers, and you’ve got other stakeholders, and it’s a tricky business to thread the needle on all of those constituencies. You need to be clear-eyed about it.”

Avoid Virtue Signaling

One final consideration here is the need for organizations to take action, not just issue empty statements. Businesses may be building trust by saying the right things, but if their actions aren’t meeting their messaging—particularly on sensitive topics such as diversity—they could find themselves accused of virtue signaling, LaBranche said.

“I think that companies saying things because they think that’s the right thing to say and then not backing it up with the actions or helping in some way will, over time, lose trust,” he said. The potential result: falling into the vacuum of disappointment that other institutions have been accused of.

(natasaadzic/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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