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Seven Standout Trust Busters of 2016

Bruce MacLellan

Trust among citizens, either as consumers or voters, is a fragile thing nowadays. As another year comes to an end, I’ve witnessed a number of spectacular cases of losing trust during 2016. Many of these involve large corporations, institutions that research shows only 29% of Canadians trust highly.

The Oxford dictionary defines trust as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. It states that “relations have to be built on trust.”  Anyone who has ever had a relationship with another human being knows this to be true. Relationships that lack trust are a waste of time. They lead to disappointment and frustration and the pursuit of more fulfillment elsewhere.

As consumers, we trust companies when we think their products will provide a benefit without harming us. We also want to believe companies are made up of good citizens that act accordingly, supporting the community and paying employees fairly. We also know that another top trust driver is transparency and open communication. I don’t put my trust in companies that keep secrets.

We all have different priorities and expectations for companies. Some of us, like me for example, care more about choosing environmentally friendly products, while others are fatalistic and don’t think they can make a difference. Companies need to know their audience and what they believe and expect.

Government and politicians need to think similarly. Voters want to trust that their leaders will behave ethically and make decisions that better people’s lives.

As we head into 2017, my seven standout trustbusters have one thing in common: they were made worse by poor communication, which – I know from experience – could have easily been avoided.

1. The recall of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7.

This decision deserves a special place when it comes to losing trust. Samsung was too quiet throughout this recall, creating confusion for telecom providers and Note 7 owners about how to refund or return phones. I started to see this story online and thought it was click-bait, only to learn that the images of blown up phones were not only real, they were something the company seemed to be ignoring. Months later this is still a topic of conversation. Why? Because Samsung missed their opportunity to come clean.

2. Former UK PM David Cameron calling the Brexit referendum.

Mr. Cameron may have trusted the people, but he lost trust around the world when he argued that the Brexit vote was necessary to resolve the debate between Britain and the EU, and then resigned after losing, putting his country in an uncertain economic quagmire. How can Britain trust a leader that doesn’t have a clear vision?

3. Epipen manufacturer Mylan’s pricing strategy.

The combination of raising both prices and executive salaries is a real trust buster. Mylan has more than 90% market share in the allergy pen market and five high-level executives who earned nearly $300 million over the last five years. At the same time, the cost of two Epipens has risen in price from $100 to more than $600 over the past 10 years. I can’t think of a more obvious way to show your customers you don’t care about their health or wellbeing.

4. Chipotle’s approach to repeated outbreaks.

This issue has been ongoing since 2015, with more than 500 people falling sick after eating at Chipotle restaurants. It’s shocking to see that problems continued for a second year, with supplier audits still finding issues in food safety. Chipotle’s commitment to better screening procedures in an attempt to win back trust may be too little, too late. The company’s value has dropped to half what it was 12 months ago and leadership has stopped issuing monthly sales reports.

5. Microsoft’s decision to develop a twitter bot.

Microsoft created Tay, a Twitter chatbot, to reply to questions in a casual, millennial-type way. Tay was easy for users to manipulate, resulting in tweets that supported genocide and denied the existence of the Holocaust, while also showing how unprepared the technology was. Tay was taken offline, but no apologies were issued. The only statement made by Microsoft was that they are “making some adjustments to Tay.” I question whether other Microsoft innovations will meet the same fate.

6. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police burying sexual harassment complaints.

The RCMP, Canada’s top law enforcement agency, has been covering up and fighting sexual harassment complaints for years. Recommendations made by a watchdog were ignored. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson finally apologized, praised the women for their courage and announced a cash settlement that may reach $100 million. But when Canadians can’t trust the very people whose job it is to serve and protect, who can they trust?

7. The United States of America deciding to elect Donald Trump.

The most disheartening and disturbing election campaign in history has ended with President-elect Donald Trump planning to take office in January. His brutal character assassination of every opponent and the entire democratic system has undoubtedly left trust levels in the institution of government at record lows. How can we trust an America that puts more trust in a reality star than a seasoned politician? Shame!

The decline of trust, aided in some cases by a decline in truth, is a serious threat to our institutions, our economy, and our safety. We all need to keep our eyes open so it can be thwarted.

But this isn’t limited to citizens alone; businesses of today must also collect and listen to public feedback, and show that they’ve acted on that information. Reputable, level-headed leaders should redouble their efforts to build trust as a part of their brand management strategy. It could build a distinct competitive advantage.  Because, in 2017, everyone is going to expect it.