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.

Who do you trust most (and least) in a crisis?

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer makes sobering reading for corporate leaders. Trust in all institutions has fallen to levels not seen since the global financial crisis while, in half the countries surveyed, trust in business has slumped below 50 per cent.

Worryingly, the credibility of CEOs continues to decline. Only 43 per cent regard CEOs as credible, compared with academic or industry experts (70 per cent), company technical experts (67 per cent) or ‘a person like yourself’ (63 per cent.) Only government officials and regulators rank lower at 38 per cent.

The findings add to the debate about whether the CEO should be the primary spokesperson in a crisis. Quite apart from the practical issues of time and availability for media briefings, there’s the question of whether the CEO will be believed.

Hayward Quote 2

If ‘a person like yourself’ is among the most credible information sources, a CEO who is obviously not ‘a person like yourself’ faces an even bigger credibility gap.

Reflecting on the Gulf of Mexico spill, former BP CEO Tony Hayward told the Financial Times last year, “There was no way in a million years that I was ever going to connect with the citizens of Louisiana and Texas. I needed to have a role, but not the leading role.”

It would be wrong to suggest that the CEO should shy away from communicating – there is an expectation of visible leadership in a crisis. A better solution is to build a bench strength of subject matter experts and advocates to support the CEO and lend greater credibility.

Search engines more trusted as a source of news: 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer

Search engines more trusted as a source of news: 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer

Searching for News
For the first time, search engines are now the most trusted source of general news and information among informed publics, eclipsing traditional news media. Owned and social media are also increasingly trusted.

This has implications for the way organisations communicate in a crisis. Making information easy to find and share is important, as is engaging with stakeholders and credible third parties: relationships which should be in place before a crisis hits.