Essentials to be a trusted communication partner

What are some of the characteristics communications leaders need to show to be worthy recipients of trust, inside and outside the organisation?


Meet Frank. Frank is a business leader who is keen to communicate a team re-organisation. He feels the change is easy to comprehend and he doesn't need to communicate widely. Since the changes are meant for a region he suggests the message is shared locally. Meet Jill. Jill is the communications manager, and she’s not convinced. She seeks the views of her peers and leaders across regions and is told that Frank's team is missing an opportunity to keep the rest of the organisation informed. Being unaware of these changes can be unsettling for Frank’s peers and others in the organisation. Taking these insights and perspectives, Jill challenges Frank to step up and announce his message on a wider level. Frank relents after listening to Jill’s convincing arguments. He later drops a note to Jill’s manager to share how he valued her counsel and appreciated the fresh perspectives that she brought to this communication.

Let’s consider another scenario. A former employee posts inflammatory comments about certain communities on his Facebook page and creates an online forum that spreads communal disharmony. His page indicates his association with a former employer. Enraged online readers contact the organisation and are told the individual no longer works with the firm. They seek action against the person involved. However the organisation’s leaders prefer to stay away and avoid getting embroiled in the controversy. Jim, the corporate communication manager, convinces his leaders of a potential backlash and steps up to engage the public and media. Over the next few days he personally responds to the online petitioners and reports the issue to the police who take action against the individual. His effective handling of the situation defuses any further reputational damage and the organisation receives plaudits for its effort.

In both of the above cases the competence, responsiveness, reliability, credibility and courage of the communicator helped establish trust and influence stakeholders on the most appropriate interventions. Just getting a seat at the executive table isn’t good enough. Challenging leaders to review decisions, encouraging them to take action and change behaviour are essential to be viewed as a trusted partner.

Decoding trusting behaviour isn’t easy. Trust in leaders and organisations are eroding rapidly. Research reports share that organisations that foster trust among stakeholders are financially more successful, have improved collaboration and achieve a lot more. Leaders are considering changes at the workplace to become more trustworthy. The 16th annual Global CEO Study by PwC indicates that among the four priorities that leaders have on their agenda is the need for a framework to support ethical behaviour. Such changes are indicative of the shift within organisations to help stakeholders trust the workplace and leaders more than ever.

"Decoding trusting behaviour isn’t easy. Trust in leaders and organisations are eroding rapidly."

However, the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer study indicates that credibility among leaders is dipping and technical experts, academicians and industry experts are considered most trustworthy and therefore the right choice as spokespersons. Earlier studies showed that the employee was more credible that the CEO making it complex for communicators to position messages from the leader. Interestingly, a study by the Society of Human Resources Management and the Council of Public Relations Firms show that about 30 per cent of human resources professionals and 35 per cent of employees state that their organisations are always open and honest.

Gaining the trust and attention of senior leaders seems to be much harder and they expect a lot from communicators. The 2015/16 edition of VMA Group’s annual Pulse study reports that about half the surveyed communication leaders claim they have a seat at the executive table. A majority of the professionals believe they will be able to increase influence for their functions in the near future. A trend report from Spencer Stuart on the clout of the corporate affairs directors indicate that only a third have a high level of influence inside the organisation, 22 per cent have low influence, with the remaining 44 per cent having a moderate influence. The study reviewed the depth of the corporate affairs directors influence by considering factors such as reporting line, time spent with the CEO, access to the board members, the scope of the overall function, the breadth of direct reports, and time spent with the chairman and the board. It tells us also that having a seat at the table or enough face-time isn’t enough to be seen as credible and trustworthy.

Also, employer communication isn’t as believable as we would like it to be. A Towers Perrin Survey shows that almost half of employees surveyed in the US weren’t convinced about the credibility of employer communications. Although a majority wants to hear the truth from their employers very few consider communication as trustworthy. To build credibility organisations are investing in sharing both good news and bad news clearly and completely, involving employees in decision making, seeking feedback and increasing opportunities for dialogue.

The four pillars of trust: ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability

So how can corporate communicators be trusted partners? To be able to enhance their value and impact, communicators need to understand and implement elements that influence trust. Research studies give us those insights. In one such study on leadership, trust and communication authors identify four pillars of trust – ability (knowledge, skills and professionalism), benevolence (empathy, recognising individual needs and being approachable), integrity (ethical behaviour) and predictability (staying consistent, matching the ‘say’ and the ‘do’). Trust is built though action (demonstrating intent) and interaction (showcasing warmth and engagement) while respect, credibility and fairness have an influence on the degree of trust organisations can foster internally. Corporate communicators are looking to external agencies and consultants for advice and the trend is expected to increase even more with the growing need to prove communication value to leaders. An information-overloaded environment and social/digital media noise further complicates the correct reception and perception of messages.

"To be able to enhance their value and impact, communicators need to understand and implement elements that influence trust."

Communicators can facilitate the process that allows employee participation, share substantial information so that their employees make informed decisions, provide balance reports that hold the organisation accountable and open the firm for scrutiny. Such opportunities exist in the communication that we craft and share. Studies on change management highlight how focusing on what matters to employees rather than the process of change can dramatically shift how employees view your messages. To be seen as credible and trustworthy communicators must focus on employees’ primary motivators such as the impact on society, the customer, the company and its shareholders, the working team and on the individual. This proves to be more impactful than the rational approach of how employees change behaviour.

"To be seen as credible and trustworthy communicators must focus on employees’ primary motivators."

By providing platforms for employees to be themselves and be more open communicators can raise the levels of trust and bridge the gap between leaders and their teams. Likewise, by encouraging leaders and managers to communicate more transparently and honestly about their plans can improve trust within. To build internal credibility for communication and thereby be viewed as a trusted partner corporate communicators need to understand the dynamics at work at the workplace, risks and opportunities that can make or mar relationships. They need to take a pragmatic view of the various behaviours exhibited by leaders as well as the messages that actions send. Demonstrating competence and warmth, reviewing policies that come in the way of transparency and fairness, showing the ‘human’ side, recommending open-door approaches to communication, involving employees and leaders and building strong competencies are concrete ways to develop a strong trusting relationship.

Image: Thinstock

Aniisu K. Verghese

Aniisu K. Verghese leads corporate communications and corporate social responsibility for Tesco Bengaluru, the technology and operations center of Tesco. He is an internal communication leader and author with over 16 years’ experience in internal communications and social media with retail, IT, financial services and consulting organisations. Aniisu was recognised with the 2015 PR Hall of Fame honour  by the Public Relations Council of India.