In an age of mistrust, is the ladder of credibility broken?

It used to be so simple.

When under attack on an issue, reach out to a third party who is more trusted than you and who agrees with your point of view.

A healthcare professional. An environmental scientist. An academic or independent expert. We use them to get a leg up on the ladder of credibility.

The approach even has its own theory, credibility transference, coined by risk expert Vince Covello who argues that aligning yourself with someone more credible than you will raise your own credibility.

But in the age of mistrust, is the ladder of credibility broken?

Trust in all institutions remains stubbornly at an all time low. The rise of disinformation – ‘fake news’ – has sown doubt in the public’s mind of even the most authoritative figures. According to one pro-Brexit British MP, Michael Gove, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

My own view is that reports of the independent expert’s death are exaggerated. A strong endorsement can still be a powerful weapon. But their credibility and authority can never be assumed in our polarised red state/blue state world.

Choose your expert advocates with care. What standing do they have in their own professional communities? Are there skeletons lurking in their closets – perhaps a stray old paper or conference speech? Can they withstand a Twitter firestorm from your fiercest adversaries?

If necessary, run your own ‘opposition research’ on your chosen experts.

Whatever happens, protect their independence scrupulously. Everyone is a cynic these days and your audiences will be quick to smell a rat.

Finally, you may need to be patient – when climbing the ladder of credibility, it’s one rung at a time.

Applying the 80-20 rule to crisis management

In the not-so-original words of Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate. More accurately, in an issue or crisis, your adversaries will have powerful reasons to double down on their position: they may have a diametrically opposed worldview or a need to maintain the rage of their supporters.

Ten per cent of your audiences will always be against you.

Conversely, another 10 per cent of your audiences will probably be supportive of you.

That means your efforts need to be concentrated on the persuadable 80 per cent. They are the audiences who are willing to listen, even though they may not agree – or even approve of you – right now.

Think of it as an inverse of the Pareto principle.

It doesn’t mean you can ignore the other 20 per cent. Harness your supporters to be advocates, and be ready to rebut and respond to your detractors depending on their volume and level of influence.

Just don’t expect to change their point of view.