When Playing It Safe Doesn’t Cut It
By most measures, 2013 was a great year for corporate America. The country’s leading companies saw record profits, stocks had their biggest gains in more than 15 years, and Congressional leaders finally agreed on a budget, reducing at least some of the economic uncertainty that has been created by Washington over the past several years.
But before corporate executives start uncorking the champagne, one recent poll highlights a statistic that should give them pause: few Americans trust them.
Since 2003, The Harris Poll has released an annual survey exploring the level of trust Americans have for 19 of the country’s top industries, including everything from hospitals and supermarkets, to banks, oil, and tobacco companies.
What is the key finding this year?
The percentage of Americans who perceive the country’s leading industries as “generally honest and trustworthy” dropped for 18 of the 19 sectors included in the survey (of note, the only sector that held its own was tobacco at a lowly 3 percent trust rating). And not a single industry had more than 30 percent of respondents who believed it was honest or trustworthy. (To give a sense of just how poorly people’s perception is in this area, the industry receiving the highest percentage of respondents calling it honest and trustworthy was, in fact, “none of these.”)
What are the ramifications of this lack of trust? When companies are making money hand over fist, does it even matter that the public doesn’t trust them? After all, this isn’t the first time The Harris Poll has found a drop in public trust for America’s top industries. In the decade the poll has been conducted, the level of trust for any industry has never topped 50 percent, and many (tobacco and oil companies) have had the percentage of Americans who find them honest and trustworthy stuck in the single digits year after year.
But lack of public trust does matter. The aftershocks of the 2008 financial meltdown continue to foster public backlash against banks, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s spying on Americans with the help of the country’s tech industry might explain some of the decreased trust in online search and computer software companies, and the widely-panned Obamacare rollout could point to the heightened skepticism of health insurance companies.
However, part of this lack of trust is attributable to the fact that Americans are simply more skeptical of everything these days. From Congress to Wall Street to the President, we seem to be losing trust in almost all institutions across the board.
The reasons for this pervasive increased public skepticism and decreased public trust are almost certainly multi-faceted. Part of it is likely attributable to the rise of social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the fact that we are now, more than ever, exposed to the ins and outs of every institution – warts and all – especially when it’s an institution behaving badly. We’re bombarded daily by examples of companies and individuals screwing up, so it’s no surprise we’re less trusting of them.
But, here’s where it gets confusing.
Despite this apparent lack of trust in industries, Americans still have a high degree of trust in and admiration for individual companies. Similar to how Congress is almost universally loathed, yet individual members of Congress are generally reelected – usually by a large margin – America’s most admired companies buck the survey results and transcend their industries’ low rank – think Apple, Starbucks, Amazon, Southwest, IBM, Google and Coca-Cola.
So what’s a company to do?
Differentiate. Aim to build not just a brand but an admired brand. Communicate regularly with all of your stakeholders to highlight what sets you apart from your competitors and your industry as a whole. PR is not something to be concerned about only in times of crisis or in reaction to a negative story. In our increasingly crowded and jaundiced media and digital landscape, it’s exceedingly important for companies to communicate more about their values, their mission, and how they serve their customers and communities.
If companies just run with the pack rather than chart their own course, they will be relegated to just another player in the industry. And when that industry comes under fire – for whatever reason – they’ll be seen as part of the problem. But when a company is viewed differently than the industry it’s part of, or seen as a challenger or an outlier, it is more likely to be judged solely by its own actions and decisions.
Sometimes, playing it safe isn’t actually that safe at all.