Australians are losing trust at a rapid rate. But at a time when research shows us that government, business, media, and NGOs are all considered to be untrustworthy, brands have an opportunity to reverse the trend. Only by stepping up and demonstrating leadership through the adoption of an ethical and transparent approach to data and technology can brands rebuild trust with the Australian public.

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As the old adage goes, trust takes years to earn and seconds to break. It’s one of the most valuable commodities a brand can have, and yet, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer has shown we’re now operating in a world where a crisis of trust is taking hold. Aussies are losing trust at a rapid rate, particularly in the face of confusing new technologies like open banking, which means that now more than ever it’s essential for brands to ensure they behave ethically and openly in relation to data if they are to build and maintain consumer trust, bucking the current trend.

Circuits

Of course, those familiar with Edelman’s Trust Barometer will know that a decline in trust has been ongoing for some time and is a much broader issue than how it simply relates to technology and potentially unscrupulous data management. While that is an important issue, and one we will address, there’s a broader system at work today undermining the Australian public’s morale.

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Despite a strong global economy and near full employment, Aussies do not trust any of the four institutions measured in the Trust Barometer: government, business, media, and NGOs. From the revolving door that is the Australian prime ministership, to the rise of fake news, and a string of scandals involving our financial institutions, trust has been under a barrage of fire from all sides.

It took yet another hit recently with the catastrophic national bushfire crisis. A Supplementary Trust Barometer study revealed that the inferno that swept across our continent caused Australia’s informed public to suffer a severe breakdown of trust in government. What could have been an opportunity to unite the nation and build a sense of security was instead squandered by a lack of empathy, authenticity, and effective communication as members of the government stumbled from one public embarrassment to the next.

When all is said and done, the simple truth is that Australians no longer feel in control, and with government, media, business, and NGOs all having been deemed undeserving of trust, it’s easy to see why Aussies view their future rather bleakly. In fact, according to the Trust Barometer, 68 per cent of Australians believe they and their families will not be better off in five years’ time.

What this makes clear is that many Australians do not believe the system is working for them, which leaves us in a rather tough spot. So, what can brands do through their handling of data and technology to rebuild trust with a public that feels it has been consistently let down for so many years?

To answer this, we must look at what trust means. At its core, trust is granted by people based on two things: competence and ethics. And for brands to thrive, they must offer both. Fortunately, things are not as dire for business as other institutions. Respondents to this year’s Trust Barometer were quite damning in their assessment of government and media, deeming them both incompetent and unethical. However, their view of NGOs and business was less harsh. NGOs, while seen to be lacking in competence, were considered ethical organisations. For business, the reverse was true, with competence seen as a strength, but ethics left wanting.

While being viewed as competent is certainly a start, our Edelman Trust Management study, which tracks 40 major companies in three markets, has shown that ethical drivers like integrity, dependability, and purpose are three times more important than competence when it comes to building trust. It’s ultimately a brand’s ethics that do the heavy lifting. This means that by demonstrating a genuine change towards ethical behaviour, brands can help to build trust with the public. And as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by technology and marked by the blending of the digital and physical worlds, there is an opportunity to do just that.

Because the simple fact is that Australians are suspicious of the direction technology is heading and how it will change the world. In the last twelve months, Australians’ trust in technology has dropped six points, driven down by concerns like the high speed at which technology moves and its ability to affect whether we can trust what we see and hear. There is also a concern held by more than two in three Aussies that government does not understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them effectively.

It’s this final point, again highlighting Australians’ lack of faith in government, that provides the perfect opportunity for brands to step up, provide real leadership, and be witnessed to be doing the right thing when it comes to technology and data.

Because knowing what we do about the public’s current distrust of government, it’s reasonable to question, the effectiveness, as a means of reassuring the public, of the government’s response to the recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) digital platform inquiry report. While establishing a dedicated unit within the ACCC to monitor and report on the state of competition and consumer protection in digital platform markets is certainly a positive change, brands that want to build trust must first comply with these regulations and then go even further, demonstrating their leadership to the Australian public.

This is an unmissable opportunity for brands to really step up. And Aussies are already waiting for it to happen – over three-quarters of Australians believe CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than waiting for government to impose it.

So, how do brands do this? By balancing competence with ethics, ensuring that they not only have the processes and mechanisms in place to do the right thing, but are also willing to be open and frank with consumers, while going above and beyond what is expected.

Let’s look at data. Australians understand that the tracking of data is not inherently the issue. It’s what comes next that can be problematic and they’ve been exposed to enough unethical and systematic manipulations of data to justifiably have a permanently raised eyebrow when it comes to the issue.

With this in mind, brands must reframe the way their tracking of data is perceived by clearly and openly demonstrating to customers the value to both parties in the data exchange. Australians will be more willing to offer access to their data if they can see genuine benefits, while also receiving reassurance that the data will remain secure in the hands of the brand in question.

If the worst should happen and customer data is somehow compromised, brands must be open about it and alert the public immediately, providing completely transparent communications around the situation as it develops. If at any point the public suspects obfuscation is in play, trust will break down. As we said at the start, years to earn, seconds to break.

Finally, brands should use their access to data to do good by addressing broader social issues in the world. As an example, a particularly troubling issue that our global Edelman team has helped to tackle through data is the trafficking of millions of people out of Southeast Asia. Through a partnership with the global anti-trafficking non-profit organisation STOP THE TRAFFIK, our in-house data specialists, known as the Edelman Predictive Intelligence Centre (EPIC), looked to deploy machine learning techniques to generate real-time hotspot maps as well as predictive models that could identify trafficking routes and behaviours across the region. This has enabled us to use social media and apps to educate and raise awareness; share data with media, empowering them to report on the issue; and inform key stakeholders who can disrupt trafficking.

I realise this is a particularly ambitious example of using data for society’s benefit, but any brand that can build an approach to data around the open and clear explanation of the value exchange; transparency in the case of a security breach or any other issue; and the use of data for the benefit of the broader society will be going a long way toward building trust.

However, if brands instead choose to embrace short-term thinking, place profits ahead of the public good, stay silent on real people’s concerns, and fail to show leadership in a new world that causes considerable anxiety for many Australians, trust will continue to evade them.

At Edelman, building trust between our clients and Australians lies at the heart of what we do. Because without trust, and the work that reinforces the ethics that support it, we risk finding ourselves living in an Australia that is less hopeful, less compassionate, and less willing to do the right thing.

Alexandre Debiève