How CEOs Cultivate Trust and Create Change in the Post-Truth Era

Building trust in your brand and among your audience can contribute to a more trusting society.

In 2016, Oxford Languages declared “post-truth” to be word of the year. That was just the beginning of the era of post-truth, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

That was long before global lockdowns swept the planet in 2020, creating siloed spaces of public discourse and extreme mistrust of those in other silos. In 2022, how can business leaders, CEOs, and their brands cultivate trust when public distrust is at an all-time high?  

In my upcoming book, The Hawke Method, I walk the reader through the three core concepts of awareness, nurturing, and trust. These are framed as marketing concepts in the book, but are the foundation of any good relationship.  

I’ll focus on trust here, which, in The Hawke Method, is the moment when a consumer decides that the value offered is worth their money. 

What Is Trust?

The antidote to post-truth is trust. Trust has been defined in a number of ways, but I like this definition from Frances Frei, in her TED Talk about trust. She breaks trust into three components: 

  1. Authenticity 
  2. Rigor of logic  
  3. Empathy

Think about a person or institution that you don’t trust. Consider which of these components is missing. Consider a brand you buy from and trust. Does it feel like the brand meets all three requirements?

What Is the State of Trust?

Trust is an interesting concept in 2022. I took a look at the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, curious to read about a study performed on public trust. Would it confirm my suspicions?

In short, yes. Here are some of the findings: 

  • Public trust in the media has plummeted.

  • Public trust in the government has plummeted.

  • Public trust in businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has remained steady.

  • Concern about fake news are at an all-time high.

  • The public is concerned that journalists, their country’s leaders, and business leaders are deliberately misleading them.

That doesn’t sound good, does it? The report goes on to describe that we are locked in a cycle of mistrust that is destabilizing society. When you look at the components of trust listed above, that makes sense. You may be wondering, “So, what can I do? Isn’t this bigger than me?”

What Responsibility Do Brands Have to Lead Positive Change?

Although brands and their CEOs aren’t universally trusted, they are not as actively mistrusted as the media and government. The Edelman report puts forth a bold suggestion: 

CEOs, businesses, and NGOs are expected to be the face of change to break the cycle of distrust

NGOs and businesses are seen as both more ethical and competent than the media or government. 

How Can Brands and CEOs Build Belief and Trust?

Belief is built through two factors, according to Eugene M. Schwartz’s legendary book, Breakthrough Advertising

  1. What we say 
  2. The groundwork that was laid before the statement

That means we have to establish a groundwork of trust before making sweeping statements and decisions. The three components of trust listed above contribute to both the groundwork laid and the statement made.  

As many as 81% of Edelman survey respondents said CEOs should be personally visible when speaking about public policy with external stakeholders or the work their company has done to benefit society. Doing so increases transparency, which lays the foundation for belief and trust. That then allows CEOs to lay the foundation for guiding greater public discourse. 

The poll also concluded that people want to see more business and CEO involvement in societal issues. This makes sense, as both brand and personal transparency and authenticity have become expected parts of doing business—and being a person—today. 

How Can CEOs and Brands Lead Positive Change?

CEOs and brands build trust with their audiences by showing up, not showing off. Being truly personable, logical, and empathetic with both employees and customers is key in today’s post-truth world.  

By doing so, one cultivates acceptance and belief, which results in increased trust in any relationship, including those between buyer and seller. Mistrust is bred through avoidance, lack of accountability, and lack of logical information.  

With the trust you cultivate, you make lifelong customers and also, potentially, can shift public opinion. As a CEO and brand, determine how you can meet the requirements of authenticity, rigor of logic, and empathy:

  • Are you missing any of these areas?

  • Consider how these factors lay the foundation for any statements you make about yourself, your brand, and the world at large.

  • Are you trusted enough to be making the statements you’re making?

  • Will your audience, fans, and customers believe in you?

CEOs have a responsibility to be trustworthy and shape public narratives. Consider how and what you do and say can create a better, more trusting world. 

Erik Huberman is the Founder & CEO of Hawke Media, a full-service Outsourced CMO based in Santa Monica, CA that launched in 2014 and has been valued at $60 million.