It may surprise you, but people in the 15th century were as concerned about fake news and disinformation as we are today. Back then, the invention of the printing press was seen as a potential route to increased fakery and forgery; now, social media is helping create what the World Health Organization has called an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and disinformation.
Misrepresentation of the facts can undermine trust and confidence in all institutions: government, judiciary, the media and – of course – businesses. While companies often score significantly better than other institutions on trust, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer finds that more than half of respondents globally believe that capitalism in its current form is doing more harm than good.
Companies fight back
Business leaders are taking steps to shore up trust, notably by embracing the idea of corporate ‘purpose’ and a recognition that companies must not only consider shareholders, but also the impact of their decisions on the workforce, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.
Thought leadership is a formidable weapon in their trust armoury. When it is authentic and credible, thought leadership reinforces clients’, customers’ and employees’ positive perceptions of a company. Done right, it shows that a company is credible and has significant expertise, which reinforces the ‘trusted partner’ image. But get it wrong, and it can do significant damage to trust.
Here is how to get it right:
Conducting research is key to building credibility in thought leadership. Firms seeking wider brand recognition, such as New Relic, can use independent research in their content to highlight their capabilities, skills and knowledge. Primary survey research, desk research and interviews with people outside your organisation, such as business leaders and academics, gives B2B content the gravitas of third-party testimony.
This is the one that many of us struggle with, because thought leadership can sometimes – if we are honest – go for hyperbole over authenticity. Take artificial intelligence and its impact on performance as an example. As well as giving your view on how AI can achieve fantastic things, look at what stands in the way: ethical issues, new risks, the difficulties of moving from a pilot to scale, and the fact that there are not always the skills to properly exploit these tools. A specific survey research technique that can also help is asking respondents to distinguish between what they would like AI to do for their organisation and how far they feel they have got in achieving that goal. There is often a gap between aspiration and pragmatic reality.
One-off thought leadership is unlikely to shift perceptions – it takes time and effort and needs to be a well-resourced program, with organisations prepared to invest in a topic and themes over the long term. Intrum’s European Payments Report is a prime example of long-term investment in thought leadership. Now considered to be a go-to outlook on business growth and financial health, it has been consistent and innovative for 22 years.
It is a generally accepted truth that trust takes a lifetime to build, and the sheer scale of disinformation today makes that task even more difficult. Organisations that are committed to rebuilding trust have a range of weapons in their armory, from compelling purpose to data privacy, greater transparency to robust cybersecurity. Thought leadership can also be a powerful weapon if companies build these trust principles into their strategy and approach.