This article was first published in

What would become known as the Summer of Love was already taking shape in January 1967, in the Human Be-in at Golden Gate Park. The phrase itself—Summer of Love—was bandied about for months that spring by national media, building up demand among students impatiently waiting for the school year to end. The Grateful Dead, the Merry Pranksters, Free Love, Be-ins, Hippies, and Timothy Leary were all part of the mix. At the time, “Love” was a euphemism for various things: music, progressive political policies, psychedelic drugs, sex.

But however the word was used, it eventually became clear that the legacy of that summer was anything but love. As PBS later put it, “by 1968 … an alternative lifestyle had descended into a maelstrom of drug abuse, broken dreams, and occasional violence.” The summer of 1967 was also the Summer of Riots in Newark, Detroit, and 126 other U.S. cities.

You could argue that the level of talk about “love” was inversely proportional to the love that resulted. Which brings us to 2010, and the Summer of Trust.

Distrust, Anger and Discontent

In 2010, “trust” has bloomed in the public’s consciousness the way “love” did back then. I’ve been focusing on trust for 13 years now, and the amount of attention I see focused on the subject is unprecedented.

But—what will be the legacy of the Summer of Trust? Will we look back on all this focus as a time of consciousness-raising, enabling an increase in a crucial element of business and society? Or, like the Summer of Love, will more talk actually signal the reverse—the beginning of even more malfeasance and declining trust?

Trust has certainly gotten the full attention of the measuring and tracking industries. Beginning in January, the Edelman Trust Barometer celebrated its 10th edition at Davos.Gallup hit the headlines with its Confidence in Institutions poll. Both showed new lows for various forms of trust. The Pew Research Center weighed in, showing trust in government down, with distrust, anger, and discontent all on the rise.

Perhaps most obviously, the “T” word got considerable play with current events. Think how quickly we came to connect “trust” (as in “abuse of” or “failure of”) with: BP (BP) (April); Goldman Sachs (GS) (April); Toyota (TM) (February); GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (July); congressional ethics (August); the press and the White House (July); Tylenol manufacturing (JNJ) (May).

In the press, CNBC hosted a distinguished panel of experts on the subject of restoring trust in business and markets. And Forbes produced a 19-article special on trust.

HBR’s special edition was there a year before, and BusinessWeek declared The Great Trust Offensive to be the new high ground way back in fall ’09).

Tower of Babel

Trying to make sense of all the above is daunting. What other subject matter is eclectic enough to merit press coverage on issues from leadership to economics to psychology to politics to marketing? Some of this is due to the sheer cantankerous mess of the word itself. Our casual use of the word “trust” fails to distinguish between a noun (“trust is down”), a verb (“trust me”), and an adjectival phrase (“politicians are less trusted than lawyers”).

This is not a trivial issue of semantics. We use the same word for long-term social belief systems (e.g. “democracy works”) that we use for feelings that follow economic cycles (e.g. “I trust the President”). Beneath this definitional difficulty lurks real confusion about social policy. If trust in government is down, does that mean that people are less trusting? Or that government is becoming less trustworthy? Ditto for the SEC, the local school system, and the mass media. Is the problem that we trust less, or that people, policies, and institutions have genuinely become less worthy of our trust?

If indeed the bigger issue is trustworthiness, we need to look to codes of conduct, approaches to governance and regulation, and misaligned goals and incentives. If the issue is that as a people we have become less and less inclined to trust, then scholars would tell us the root issues are such things as economic disparity, the perceived inability to better one’s life, and a generalized sense of good or ill will on the part of others. Intelligent policy discussions can’t be held if we don’t cultivate the data, even the language, to make such simple distinctions.

We sometimes forget a simple fact about trust: It’s about relationships. There has been an explosion in the number of relationships we all maintain. Fragmented business models (think outsourcing) have increased the number of relationships we maintain with customers, suppliers, new and old co-workers, and industry contacts. These new relationships are hyper-fueled by the growth in new social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs, and e-mail), in turn supported by faster Internet speed and lower costs. Just imagine how many people you interact with daily, as compared with the number 10 years ago.

Given the growth in our interactivity, we are in many ways far more trusting than we were just 10 years ago—in the amount of information we share online and the number of people we share it with. A higher number of untrustworthy interactions is compatible with a lower rate of untrustworthy interactions. So is trust up or down? Perhaps both.

Where the Weak Links Lie

Nonetheless, surveys saying “trust is down” are almost certainly saying something meaningful. And three sectors are most at risk of becoming the Newark and Detroit of this Summer of Trust. They are government, business, and the press.

The Shirley Sherrod case was a frightening example of trust breakdown for government and media. Just as with the recent financial meltdown, it became apparent that an infection in one part of the system was immediately reflected in another. Everyone—from mainstream news to bloggers to politicians—immediately bought a story that was presented horribly out of context.

The CNBC panel discussion showed the dysfunction at the junction of media and business. A panel of distinguished experts, summoned to talk about “restoring trust in business, the markets, and government,” found they couldn’t agree on much other than the need for tax cuts, a politician-like response to a critical social question stated, yet unenforced, by the media.

All three sectors—politics, business, media—are suffering from a rapid replacement of relationships by transactions. When time is short, feedback is instant, and attention spans are measured in nanoseconds, we get daily sound bites expressed at high decibel levels around issues that cry our for longer, thoughtful, collaborative discussion.

As the world of business becomes more and more interdependent and tightly connected, the implications for trust are twofold. On the one hand, the need to interact smoothly may be the major force driving us to increased trust relationships.

On the other hand, if those relationships are made up solely of low-trust, short-term, market-based transactions, the same need for interdependence will put us at greater risk of Black Swan events, thus threatening systemwide trust. We need to figure out how to integrate long-term relationships and shared goals with business models that link multiple organizations.