Why We Don’t Trust Corporations

Josh Bernoff asks the “who do you trust” question at the Groundswell blog, based on data from Groundswell.


Here’s the chart he’s talking about.


Bernoff’s discussion suggests:

  1. The best trust is personal
  2. 60% trust reviews by strangers in aggregate, e.g. “If 100 people on eBags say a laptop bag is great, then it is great. If they say it’s inferior, then it is inferior. Regardless of what a so-called "expert" might say.”

Bernoff then goes on to draw some conclusions for brand marketers: basically, if they like you, let them talk. If they don’t like you, you can’t shut them up; but you can listen to complaints and improve your product or service.

Phrased this baldly, it sounds like a massive dose of the obvious. But if it were so obvious, more companies would be doing it. Let’s break this down.

Trust is Personal

First, the idea that trust is personal. In my own work, trust is massively personal at root. Two of the four components of the Trust Equation developed by myself and co-authors Maister and Galford in The Trusted Advisor are overtly personal—intimacy and self-orientation.

Brands, Corporations and Trust

Corporations, brands and advertising are inherently impersonal and by their nature self-oriented; which is why ad campaigns and PR agencies have an awfully tough time when it comes to getting anyone to trust their messages.

Think about it. What are the two most trust-destroying words you can say? I nominate Trust Me.

And if that sounds blindingly obvious, then who developed these ad campaigns?

  • RCA “the most trusted names in electronics”,
  • Value Line “the most trusted name in investment research”, and
  • CNN “the most trusted name in news”.

(Do you think that’s why CNN has just been supplanted as “most trusted” by—of all sources—Fox News?)

How about Bernoff’s other conclusion: when they don’t like you, don’t shut them up, but address the complaint and improve the product?

It is astonishing how infrequently this obvious piece of advice is ignored. Let’s call it the Watergate catch-phrase: the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Think of the iconic Johnson and Johnson response to tampering with Tylenol—ages ago. Why does such an old example of corporate ethical behavior still come to mind? Because it’s so rare. How many pharmaceutical industry kerfuffles since have been dealt with so openly?

Remember Monsanto and Dioxin?

How about the tobacco industry’s continued, chronic response to health concerns?

Remember mad cow disease and the US beef industry’s response?

Rarely is it the first instinct of business to follow Bernoff’s “obvious” advice—to hear consumer criticism as inherently constructive, and to do something about it.

Given that response, is it really so surprising that people trust personal acquaintances more than anyone else? Trust abused is trust destroyed. The biggest reason we trust people we know is that people we know are the ones we can trust.

That’s not circular. It means people we know are more trustworthy than companies who pretend to be. Whose fault is that?


3 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, what a great article to start the week with.

    I have always heard of Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol murders hailed as the standard setting case study for handling a corporate crisis, too.  However, I was reading up on it this morning, and I was suprised to find that, according to an article in O’Dwyer’s PR Daily from May 2007, the legend may be somewhat overblown:

    . . .

    > But, as O’Dwyer’s PR Daily pointed out following the [May 22 2007] Fortune story, the Tylenol poisoning response is frequently misrepresented. PR executive James Lukaszewski once called the Tylenol story "a myth," pointing out that then-J&J CEO James Burke learned about the deaths on a Wednesday but didn’t hold a staff meeting to discuss how to respond until the following Monday. "Think about that," Lukaszewski stressed. "What started on Monday was an enormous debate within the organization as to what to do about [the murders]."

    (Excerpted from PRWatch article on James E. Burke, former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Johnson & Johnson.)

    . . .

    I had never come across this aspect of the Tylenol story before, or heard of James E. Lukaszewski.  I’ll certainly be tracking down his books now.

  2. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, did you catch that the FBI has reopened the 1982 Tylenol tampering case?

    (Incidentally, Terry Gainer, who handled the Tylenol case police inquiries, is also back in the news, in his new incarnation as Senate Sargeant-at-Arms, over his apology for the (mis)handling of presidential inauguration ticket holders.)

    I except the FBI news will stir up a flurry of commentary on crisis communications and reputation management in online PR circles. I am curious to see how much received wisdom is repeated (and how much that might just be quietly fanned by Johnson & Johnson, which has certainly benefited from the legend over the years), vs how many unpleasant lost details resurface.

    Interesting times for authenticity and transparency!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *