Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow

Nicholas McClaren (Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University, Australia)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




McClaren, N. (2004), "Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 437-439.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In many ways, this book is useful as a tool to assist senior executives who deal with issues concerning the establishment and maintenance of individual and organizational trust. This is not surprising since Al Golin, a highly respected figure in the public relations field, has effectively synthesized years of experience into a very readable publication. While this book may be valuable to senior executives in the development and implementation of their corporate trust strategies, and for its insight into the problems of handling trust, some readers may find some aspects disconcerting.

First is the incongruence between much of the advice contained in the book and its audience. If CEOs need to be told many of these things, they should have been sacked well before reaching such positions. Nevertheless, the reality is that, as Mr Golin details, many corporations have failed to establish trust with their stakeholders. Second, the book fails to adequately consider that it is a global, commercial environment in which many organizations now operate.

The 13 chapters of Trust or Consequences are divided into three sections. The initial section of three chapters “explore the issues impacting organizational trust and give you the opportunity to assess how your company is doing in the light of these issues” (p. 8). The following five chapters constitute section two, and outline the steps that companies can take to create trust. The concluding section contains five chapters that “lets you put things in perspective” (p. 9). It also includes appendices containing the Golin/Harris Trust Survey Results and the Golin/Harris Trust Index.

Chapters 1‐3 examine the trends of trust, the benefits to the bottom line, and express a “call for change”. The first chapter highlights the decline in the amount of trust provided to organizations and draws from the results of the Golin/Harris Trust Survey. These chapters were interesting for their insight into current organizational behavior. For instance, Al Golin discusses the impact online communication has on human interaction and the effect this has on trust relationships. When discussing the benefits to the bottom line in Chapter 2, he highlights the link between trust and brands. Here, he also points out that companies with sound brand reputations “have made a strong effort to build trust internally” (p. 29). In the third chapter he outlines the scope of what is involved in trust‐building activities, providing a checklist of what not to do that includes: focusing only on external fence mending, delaying trust building, blaming others, lacking sensitivity, treating the media as the enemy, and believing immediate results are a cure‐all. He continues by emphasizing that CEOs “need to take primary responsibility for building trust” (p. 49), particularly through the “trust bank”.

The concept and role of a “trust bank” is central to the way this book suggests trust should be managed. The author has coined the term “to describe how deposits of goodwill can serve a company well when it faces a crisis or other negative news” (p. 2). Thus, the “organization that consistently works at treating employees fairly, that plays straight with the media, that tells customers the truth no matter what, that is involved in helping the community and in charitable causes is one that knows how deposits in a trust bank are made” (p. 54). CEOs are urged to make deposits in their trust bank as insurance against unpredictable, and sometimes completely unfounded, attacks on their companies' reputations. To help executives determine the difficulty of the task in front of them, they can score their organizations from a checklist of critical areas provided as a conclusion to this section.

Section 2 offers practical and more detailed advice on how to build and maintain trust. The material ranges from fixing things before they break, through acknowledging what a company can and cannot do and adopting a human approach while having humility, to “other good ways to respond to bad times” (p. 124). Similar to the preceding chapters, the ideas are sequenced logically, clearly expressed, and easily read. The author shares his experience using illustrative examples from companies such as Toyota, McDonald's, Chrysler, Levi Strauss, Kellogg, and Wal‐Mart. Checklists from these chapters include identifying and assessing actions to be taken in areas of potential vulnerability – for example, the environmental, employee relations, ethics and morality, and global, legal, and media relations.

In chapter 4, the author focuses on the general criteria shared by trust bank programs. These include: commitment; having achievable goals; targeting the relevant stakeholders; doing deeds that lead to strong identification of, for instance, a charitable group with the company; aligning the corporation's self‐interest and synergy with that of the beneficiary; being sensitive to the cost; developing attention‐getting and newsworthy programs; and, involving employees. The following chapter discusses types of over‐promising, and what and how to say “You can't do it”.

The author then turns his attention to “the human touch” and humility in chapters 6 and 7. He highlights that cultures that are respectful of humans are those in which trust can grow. Here, the checklists include being authentic, not bullying, extending sympathy, and not being indifferent. His guidance for the creation of humility includes monitoring arrogant hotspots, educating people about the difference between arrogance and pride, and using advertising and public relations to communicate humility. The advice from chapter 8 includes: “Don't act like a victim,” “Don't close your eyes and hope the problem will go away,” “Don't take a Band‐Aid approach,” “Respond quickly,” “Tell the responsible truth,” “Have empathy and show compassion,” and “Take preventative action.”

The third section, chapters 9‐13, included nine scenarios about making tough trust decisions, developing trust‐building relationships with the media, what can be learnt from eight great acts of trust and distrust, and the ten commandments of organizational trust.

While the underlying message of this book is that executives should manage trust with a similar approach as that adopted for other managerial problems, there seemed to be a mismatch between much of the material and its intended audience. The advice in some areas seemed simplistic and “self‐evident” – advising people to tell the responsible truth, as an instance. However, since the book contains a register of individuals and organizations that have come unstuck by failing to heed the messages and take the sort of actions outlined by Mr Golin, it will be useful only if the book reminds executives that trust needs to be considered and managed proactively.

Overall, the evidence supported the messages contained in the book. Much of the material is based on personal experience and is valuable because it comes directly from someone who understands how executives think and from someone who has not only seen first‐hand how corporations operate, but who has participated in the development and implementation of corporate trust strategies. But this sort of evidence has its limitations. For instance, readers may not automatically accept the assertion that “The values of companies today are the same as they were years ago” (p. 22).

Readers may also prefer to see more detail about the surveys. For instance, the author noted that “83% [of respondents] agree that they are ‘more likely’ to give a company they trust the benefit of the doubt and listen to its side of the story before making a judgment when questions are raised about corporate behavior” (p. 223). The scale descriptors for this question appear to be “Disagree”, “Somewhat Agree”, and “Strongly Agree” (p. 230). In terms of scale design, the use of “Strongly Agree” as a polar opposite to “Disagree” may be problematic.

One main problem with the book, encapsulated in its title, is the manner in which Mr Golin links trust and consequences. Overall, he documents the perils of failing to manage trust and suggests that trust actions are taken in the light of the most desirable consequences. In other words, use “resources for a good cause and where the biggest trust payback will come from” (p. 147). When making ethical decisions, perhaps the guiding principle, and one that will lead to the establishment of trust, should be to do “the right thing” irrespective of the consequences. While selecting the cause with the biggest payback may be difficult for managers where there are several “right things” from which to choose, perhaps the substantive managerial issue to be addressed is: How can managers do the right thing when there is no choice?

For example, environmental issues are identified in the checklist (p. 62) of issues potentially causing a corporation to be vulnerable, and the help offered in the assessment of this area specifically included asking the question: Does your organization pollute the environment in any way? Later, the trust‐building activities suggested as ideas relating to the same heading included funding an environmental group, funding research, and sponsoring environmental awareness and education events (pp. 64‐65). However, it seems that the advice really required to build trust should have been: “Stop polluting.”

In the discussion of “results versus values,” the author notes that “If CEOs want to maintain the trust of their people and their stakeholders, they need to strike a balance between values and results” (p. 23). However, the implication that managers might trade‐off what is ethical for corporate results is untenable. Much of the lack of trust, as Al Golin points out in subsequent chapters, arises from managers behaving in a manner different from their own ethical standards.

A main criticism is the narrow perspective from which advice is provided. Although the author includes customers, employees, shareholders and suppliers as stakeholders, essentially he is referring to these groups located within the USA. In a world where much commerce is already global, scant consideration is given by the author to how trust might be extended to foreign stakeholders. In one of the very few references on creating trust that extends to a corporation's global components, he blandly recommends: “Assess the working conditions of offices and plants outside the United States to determine if they meet acceptable levels in terms of wages, working conditions, age of workers, etc., and make the necessary changes to bring them up to acceptable levels” (p. 67). This is one message employees in the free trade and export processing zones around the globe are waiting to have implemented.

There are other instances showing that the sort of trust to which the author is referring is not globally focussed. There also appears to be a gap between the way a company is repeatedly cited as an “good” example and what the company has actually done. The author writes: “You've read about how companies like McDonald's and Dow Chemical reaped tremendous benefits by adopting fix‐it‐before‐it‐breaks programs. They made extraordinary effort to ‘do good’ without anyone forcing them to. Instead they were motivated by a desire be a good corporate citizen, to help others in need” (pp. 69‐70). This compares to reports of a UK court ruling that found McDonald's exploits children as more susceptible subjects of advertising, that it is anti‐union, it pays low wages, and that its management can be unfair (No Logo – Naomi Klein, p. 433). Probably, few corporations consistently and comprehensively are able to do the right thing for the right reasons, but the practical advice in this book should help.

Trust or Consequences summarizes “best practice” for the management of organizational trust and public relations. Much of the conceptual foundations for the advice contained in the book has been researched extensively. For example, there are numerous articles on trust, corporate codes of ethics, and the influence of managers on the moral decision‐making of subordinates in publications such as the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, and the Journal of Business Research, among others. Therefore, as well as taking the excellent practical advice offered by Al Golin, those executives seriously interested in managing trust are advised to make the effort to read some of the academic research. Collectively, this research will tell you that trust is created by those at the very top doing the right thing and expecting the right thing to be done. But, this is a simplistic and self‐evident advice.

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