Brands: if you want trust give trust

Brands and businesses always want to be trusted. But rarely do they trust their customers to understand how business works. This is why most organisations mission or values statements don’t include simple direct statements of what businesses are there, in part, to do which is make money. Businesses and corporations assume that we distrust them and therefore act defensively. In some cases, often the high profile ones, covered by the media, this default position of distrust is right but the vast majority of businesses, those that many of us work for, and employ our friends and family members, are full of good people trying to deliver well for their customers and make a fair profit in return, and money for themselves.

But most businesses, especially the big ones, are pathologically scared of saying anything that isn’t on message. And those messages are devoid of reality because they just don’t trust normal people to understand that running businesses is not easy, a balancing act and they have to make a return on their efforts. The cancer in these organisations are the public relations and corporate affairs departments that are obsessed with controlling the message, saying as little as possible, and where success is staying hidden.

In my experience most people are fair and reasonable. We understand that businesses need to make money, but we want them to give us good services and not exploit us for super-profitability. But most corporations treat us like we are cynical, conspiracy theorists or anti-business. And this has created a culture, especially in Britain, France and Germany, where making a profit is seen as inherently exploitative and almost immoral.

Witness John Petter from BT this morning (12th Feb 2010) on BBC Breakfast. Since BBC doesn’t replay Breakfast (can someone upload the interview to YouTube? YES ITS HERE) I’ll give a sense of the Tweets that were going round that summarise his performance:

jhemusinsignia: BT spokesman on BBC Breakfast was v.poor: why are people lacking the necessary skills put forward? Train them or use someone else
charlie74: BBC Breakfast presenter grilling the BT rep on TV… loved it
Tommy_Hill: Anyone else think the BT guy was seriously floundering on BBCBreakfast? “I don’t know if we’ll make money on it”.. Bulls**t
zenemu: #BT chap who was just on the BBC was a bit of a worm. BT are changing free evening calls from 6pm to 7. Odious little man from awful company
RAIPR: Wtchng John Petter, BT directr justify 7pm off-peak move on BBC. Nervy, defensive, dncng feet, looking away from cam, stuttering #fail
imogenfarr: Anyone see the BBC Breakfast interview with the squirming BTspokesperson? Blimey, he’d never have coped if he was interrogated by Paxman.

There is no doubt that his performance this morning was very poor but I suspect rather than being a consequence of not enough media training, it was caused by too much media training. Having been through several versions of this torture myself these sessions are focused on Corporate Affairs/Public Relations/Media people drilling you. “Don’t say this, say that”, “don’t answer questions directly” and most importantly don’t tell the truth. Don’t lie, don’t tell the truth, better to not say anything at all.

This goes right to the heart of the way that businesses present themselves currently. There is no longer a recognition, a trust, that we understand how businesses work. Read the mission and values of BT (taken from their website this morning):

Our vision

Our vision is to be dedicated to helping customers thrive in a changing world. The world we live in and the way we communicate are changing, and we believe in progress, growth and possibility. We want to help all our customers make their lives and businesses better with products and services that are tailored to their needs and easy to use.
This means getting ever closer to customers, understanding their lifestyles and their businesses, and establishing long-term relationships with them.
We’re passionate about customers and are working to meet the needs they have today and innovating to meet the needs they will have tomorrow.

Our values

Our corporate identity defines the kind of company we are now and the one we need to be in the future.
Central to that identity is a commitment to create ways to help customers thrive in a changing world. To do this we must live our brand values:
  • Trustworthy – we do what we say we will
  • Helpful – we work as one team
  • Inspiring – we create new possibilities
  • Straightforward – we make things clear
  • Heart – we believe in what we do
We are committed to contributing positively to society and to a sustainable future. This is part of the heart of BT.”

I can guarantee that John Petter and his boss Gavin Patterson spend most of their time obsessing about how they can organise their business to make money, grow and be cost efficient, whilst giving a good service. That’s what they get rewarded for. And yet making a fair return, making money for themselves and their employees, is no where to be seen in the mission and values of BT. These vision, mission and values statements have become divorced from reality, and its not just BT that suffer this problem.

Every business person that goes through a media training torture session comes out scared to death of saying anything, and is certainly left with the impression that having an open conversation about working hard to deliver value whilst making money is completely “off message”.

That’s what you could hear this morning from Mr Petter. His message was “buy unlimited packages” and he automaton-like repeated this time and time again. Charlie Stayt asked for a commitment from him that the prices would always be better value now and in the future, something which was impossible to answer on the couch in a studio. But instead of calmly responding, as Mr Petter might in a normal conversation with you or me, that BT always wanted to be good value, but that these decisions needed to be properly planned his only reply was “buy unlimited packages”. He thereby demonstrated that he didn’t trust those listening to his interview to conclude that he was a reasonable man with a reasonable approach and, yep, these things generally needed to be thought about.

Even when Susannah Reid asked him directly why he didn’t just explain that giving customers free calls meant that they didn’t make enough money, he wasn’t brave or trusting enough, to agree and admit that giving a good service and making a fair profit was what they were trying to do. All he could say was “buy unlimited packages”.

I felt sorry for John Petter this morning, a classic victim of media training where the goal is to say nothing, and a corporate and cultural context where trusting people to understand that businesses are there to try and give good services that we all need, and make a fair profit in return, is unacceptable.

Unfortunately until brands and businesses start to wake up to the fact that trust is a two way relationship, they will never win our trust.

Did you see the interview this morning. What do you think?
Do you work for BT? How did you feel?
Have you been media trained? What is your experience?

Please comment below and share with others using the social media icons.

Thanks – have a lovely, non-business, non-brand, non-marketing weekend and Valentine’s day.


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4 thoughts on “Brands: if you want trust give trust”

  1. From a reader by email:

    Interesting views Justin, and I tend to agree in principal. However, the main intermediary between business and customer is often the media, who are interested in explosive headlines and selling papers. They have an incentive to ignore the facts around compromise and making a return. Isn't that one of the reasons for "media training"

  2. Justin

    You included my tweet as part of your posting so I wanted to add to your thoughts. I think generalisations about PR people seeking to hide the truth and stifle discussion are inaccurate and unfair to many of the people with whom I've worked (though I know there are some that match this description). And I do think describing PR people as a "cancer" is somewhat harsh.

    Successful PR people build strong relationships with the media and provide spokespeople who are not only capable of putting across the company's perspective, but also make for good TV. As a consequence they are invited back time and time again. That wouldn't happen if they didn't answer questions or didn't tell the truth (their credibility would be destroyed).

    I accept that some media training may match the experience you describe, but if so, you've been trained by the wrong people! Any media trainer worth their salt would have had the guts to tell Mr Petter that he is not cut out to be a spokesperson. If he was indeed trained (and I still doubt it), the "coach" also failed to tell him one of the first rules of TV – look at the interviewer not the camera – and they failed to spot or correct his dancing foot! Most importantly they would have told him that you can't get away with non-answers and that effective messages must connect with the audience and the context of the interview – not simply be a list of things that you want to tell people. Spokespeople who are trained well not only represent their companies better, they also communicate more effectively with viewers.

    Mr Petter was a disaster for BT and a wate of air time for the BBC's viewers. High quality media training – and probably a different spokesperson – would have allowed BT to present itself in a more empathetic and credible way. Not by failing to answer the questions, but by answering them clearly and well.

    Jonathan Hemus

  3. Jonathan

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. Your points make me want to be a little clearer on my position which I think will help the debate.

    The "cancer" that I think is so damaging is less the people in Corporate Affairs / PR departments (many of which I respect) and more the current attitude of businesses that having an opinion is dangerous and success is avoiding any public reaction or dialogue whether positive or critical.

    I think this is so damaging because it creates a vicious cycle where making money by giving a good service is somehow seen as "wrong" and exploitative, and this leads to a misunderstanding of the role and benefits of businesses in our society. It also means that there cannot be an informed debate on how businesses should operate, what risks are acceptable, and what practises are unacceptable.
    This lack of discussions reduces the trust that businesses place in people to understand these often carefully balanced puts and takes, and means that people have less and trust in businesses – allowing a stereotype of the greedy CEO or Banker to become the norm.

    Media training in my experience is too much about avoiding the question or spinning the question round so that you can deliver "a key message". You sound like you might be different, if only because you have the balls to tell a client they are not cut out for media. Unfortunately in Mr Petter's case this would have been valuable advice.

    Thanks again for your comments.


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