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Balloon in the wind: The vulnerability of trust


Nicky Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO shares her key takeouts from Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer - an analysis of trust across NGOs, Government, Business and Media.

Three pink balloons lined up

Trust it is said, starts and ends with the truth. Seems simple enough and yet can be elusive for many. It is the bedrock of the best relationships we have at home, at work, in our communities, nationally. Yet whilst universally appreciated, it is hard to build and easy to lose. Trust is defined as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something”. This very expression speaks to the fact that trust is earnt - through consistency, honesty, and competency. It is not a “fly by night, try to wing it”-kind of thing. Like anything valuable, it is something to protect, to defend, to nurture, to never take for granted - to treasure and guard. It is like a small child holding a balloon in the wind…it takes effort to hold but brings joy when you have it….and is easy to lose.

Trust is a big deal, and it is given to both individuals and also to institutions. In fact, one breach of trust by an individual can have a big impact on the reputation of the organisation from which they come. Equally you can have a collective of trustworthy individuals but if the institution they come from has credibility issues, then sadly one can be tarnished with the same brush. As with most things, actions speak louder than words when it comes to trust and in 2020, the actions taken by governments, businesses, NGOs, and the media in Australia, contributed to building back (much-needed) trust between citizens and institutions. This was true globally and in the deep dive into the Australian-specific Edelman Trust Barometer results for 2020. A few insights really stood out for me:

Firstly, trust across all Australian institutions has reached an all-time high, resulting in significant gains for business (+11 points), government (+17 points), NGOs (+8 points) and media (+12 points). Interestingly, business and NGOs were the only institutions seen as both competent and ethical, simultaneously. Business has long held the competency baton in this study (indeed, 30 points more than government) however, the emergence of ethics as a stronghold is an important development. It was not surprising to see solid improvements in trust seen in healthcare, energy, telecommunications, financial services, retail, manufacturing, and consumer goods…all who rose to the challenge of delivering continuity of these essential services and goods, with a real community focus during 2020.

Being a demonstrated force for good financially, operationally, environmentally, and socially is essential in the enablement of a reimagined economic model that genuinely serves multi-stakeholders versus shareholders alone. Australians demand and deserve it and the positive impact that can be created for planet, people and (yes!) profits cannot be underestimated.

Secondly, there was a call to action for businesses to fill the void left by government in some areas. In fact, 66 per cent of Australians believe CEOs should step in when the government doesn’t fix societal problems and 72 per cent believe CEOs should act first rather than waiting for the government to enact change. The opportunity for action and advocacy together is certainly there. There is nothing more powerful that being the change you want to see. And yet when all stakeholders work together to do the same, then the ripple effect is far greater than any one entity doing it alone. The ambition loop of partners who came together in a bi-partisan way to serve communities first and foremost during the COVID-19 crisis was a true demonstration of the power of a coalition of the willing and able, fuelled by purpose in a time of real need.

Imagine if we were able to co-ordinate our vast resources in the same way to tackle other wicked problems that also threaten our shared stability like job security, climate action, cyber security, and social inequity. Especially with the Trust Barometer revealing that Australian citizens are more worried about these issues, than they are about contracting COVID. As a leader of a business, I realise the responsibility I have to be constructively vocal on these topics, to be authentic in the action we are taking in our own businesses (and being transparent about what we still need to do) and to lean into the heavy lifting that comes with it.

At Unilever, we continue to take proactive and progressive action in the fight against climate change and social inequality – through our corporate storytelling and advocacy work, and also through our broad portfolio of brands with purpose. Our efforts are sometimes provocative, but this is necessary for urgent action. We have made progress and like many we still have much more to do – we are buoyed by the grass roots movements from everyday Australians who enjoy our products and the many team members who design and produce them, and who are pushing us to move even faster in this space.

Finally, trust in all information sources (search engines, media, owned channels, social channels) has hit a record low with Australians feeling that media channels prioritise politics and headlines over information integrity. Whilst social media saw a 9-point increase compared to a year ago, it still remains lowest on the totem pole when compared to owned, traditional and search media outlets. Ironic that it has the highest use, yet the lowest trust.

Surely this is an opportunity to pause and deliberately consider how we all seek and find truth. We must ask, who can we trust? How do we get out of our respective echo chambers and how do we increase the number of Australians who validate their news sources (currently only 25% of people do)?

Unsurprisingly, Australians are turning to their employers as a source of credible news; a kind of ‘on the job myth busting service’ to cut through the noise and be relied upon to share facts and balanced viewpoints. In many ways, one of the silver linings of COVID has been a significantly more distributed leadership approach in organisations –frequent and transparent communications, with authentic two-way dialogue and a much more human side of leadership emerging. Empathy and compassion are no longer seen as a weakness - rather, an essential pre-requisite for any chance of delivering extraordinary results in difficult times. It should have been obvious well before now, but as with many things, COVID has amplified this need. I personally hope this really heralds in an era of psychological safety as being as critical to an organisation’s success as a strong strategic roadmap or a robust balance sheet. It will be the foundation on which issues are surfaced fast, creative ideas are tabled and from which experimentation and lateral thinking and action will bloom. Goodness know we will all need that to not just survive but to thrive.

Compared to the 27 countries in the Trust Barometer study, Australia saw the highest increase in trust compared to 2019 (+12 points) and moved to the cusp of ‘neutral/trusting’ overall. When compared to the last survey where Australia sat in the bottom third in the ‘distrusted’ camp, this is big moment. The simple truth is that a single lie exposed is enough to create doubt in every truth expressed. In the same way, trust is earned when actions meet words. Our collective actions in 2020, across government, business, NPO and media has resulted in a step change in trust – the glue that cements relationships - by enabling people to live and work together, to feel safe, to feel like they belong. We need to not just lose the progress we have made, but to harness it, ensuring we both lift the floor and raise the ceiling as we rebuild Australia, economically and socially, in 2021.

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