Trust fading, brand reps bank on Social Responsibility

Center piece: Corporate-Social Responsibility fits right in with brand reputation and bottom-line performance, according to David Chauvin.

For a professional communicator, nothing is more important than trust. Have it, and your message can be powerful and effective; lose it, and, well, your career might be over.

But it’s not that simple. Trust – specifically, how to maintain it – is a complicated subject in 2019. Our country is characterized by a stubborn, entrenched polarization that encourages us to label any media outlet, personality or influencer espousing different viewpoints from our own as illegitimate. What’s considered trustworthy now is fake news tomorrow.

How do you, as a communicator, maintain trust among your constituents when even demonstrable truth is divvied up, debated and deliberated across political and generational lines?

For businesses, the answer may lie in remembering our commitment to the communities we represent. In an age of intense polarization and politicization, an activity with motivations that can’t reasonably be questioned or assailed, such as charity or pro bono work, is immensely valuable.

Much can be written about the efficacy of Corporate-Social Responsibility, but the correctness of its central tenant – that businesspersons and other professionals have a fundamental responsibility to enhance society, rather than detract from it – is unassailable. Organizations should do good because doing good is right, period.

But making “giving back” a focal point of a communications plan may also have additional benefits – it may be the best way, in this divided time, to maintain trust with your audience.

Across Long Island, there are examples of thriving organizations with focused and ambitious CSR programs. Bethpage Federal Credit Union’s corporate culture places great emphasis on giving and community engagement through the charitable Bethpage Cares Program; partnering with the American Heart Association, the YMCA, Island Harvest, the Girl Scouts and more; and hosting Island-wide financial-literacy programs.

David Chauvin: Trust me on this.

Hofstra University uses its tremendous reach and scope to lead many successful regional voter-registration programs, while Melville-based design firm H2M architects + engineers’ annual “Canstruction” event challenges its engineers to design the best structures they can with donated non-perishable food items, with the “construction materials” ultimately going to families in need.

Canon USA, also headquartered in Melville, has launched an incredible program of environmental-preservation efforts. Canon is the largest funder of wildlife conservation and research in Yellowstone National Park; its funding of Yellowstone Forever contributes to important scientific research and helps break new ground in conservation, endangered-species protection and the application of cutting-edge technology essential to managing wildlife and ecosystems.

These are all examples of companies that committed to CSR and now enjoy widespread respect in their communities.

There is also research-based evidence that suggests a correlation between a brand or individual’s reputation and financial performance, and further research indicating brand reputation may be tied directly to Corporate-Social Responsibility – a straightforward line between community outreach and better bottom lines.

And there’s evidence that CSR enhances trust among a key audience of any organization: its employees. A 2018 study based in India, “Perceived CSR and Corporate Reputation: The Meditating Role of Employee Trust,” explored how Corporate-Social Responsibility affects trust between employees and management, and found that a clear understanding of CSR activities in any organization can both promote trust and enhance corporate reputation.

On the other hand, neglecting to address the impact your company has on your communities can annihilate built-up trust and make it very difficult – if not impossible – to regain it.

As a lifelong Long Islander and a communications professional who works with water districts across the Island, I can’t help but look now toward Northrup Grumman and its seeming inability to adequately reckon with the negative impact its decades of industrial production has had on this region’s precious natural aquifer.

Once a source of immense and justifiable pride for Islanders, Northrup Grumman now engenders feelings of anger among many of my neighbors. That loss of trust can be devastating to even the largest, most iconic brand; communications professionals would be wise to learn from these mistakes.

Trust, like fashion, is fleeting. “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation,” Benjamin Franklin famously said, “and only one bad one to lose it.”

You don’t earn trust once and have it forever. It takes a consistent, focused effort to maintain it, with a commitment to the truth – and a robust program of social responsibility.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of Great Neck-based public relations firm Zimmerman/Edelson Inc. and former director of communications for the Town of North Hempstead, among several government positions.