People Don’t Believe Our Organisations – Here’s Why

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There’s not a week goes by – and I mean that quite literally – in which we don’t see a sector bemoan its image problem. The launch of some campaign or other to raise awareness of a ‘message’ and get people to see the valuable contribution it makes to society.

This week it’s housing, but I could have selected almost anyone. Charities, the NHS, Financial Services – everyone, everywhere is obsessed with image.

One thing I’m certain of is that all these marketing campaigns and re-branding efforts will fail.

Here’s why: trust in institutions is eroding. And trust can only be rebuilt by actions, not words.

Imagine you’re in a relationship that starts to break down. You don’t seem to understand each other anymore. Here’s what you might do:

  • Go back to the start. Revisit the experiences that attracted you to each other in the first place.
  • Recalibrate the relationship – trying new things together.
  • Wipe the slate clean. Start afresh and reinvent yourself. A new era and new challenge.

Here’s what you absolutely would not do:

  • Start a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of your contribution to the relationship.
  • Get all your mates to agree you’re a brilliant person and tell your loved one that he/she’s mistaken.
  • Launch a new strategy to tell them what you’ll achieve over the next five years.

But time and again we see organisations adopting exactly that approach – just with the public and politicians in mind.

The issue that we face is that trust is in question. Distrust in business and government is the new normal. And you can’t rebuild trust through marketing.


The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that we face a truly global challenge.

In the digital age we are getting ever more astute in spotting spin, marketing and doublespeak.

The most credible sources are not your comms team, but an academic, a technical expert, a regular employee and “a person like myself”. All of these are more trusted than the people we here from the most – CEOs.

A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – so we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy.

Government is ,unsurprisingly, the least trusted institution. However non-profit organisations are also losing trust as they are perceived as ineffectual. 

In the world after Kids Company , and amid a huge decline of trust in charities, it’s no longer good enough to do good. You need to BE good.

If trust is at a tipping-point it’s a time for action not words.

To rebuild trust in our organisations we need to be more like people. Relationships in the digital age require acknowledging and accepting our human flaws. Ironically digital gives us the opportunity to be more human, to interact with people in more nuanced, intimate ways.

For organisations that means adopting behaviours of extreme transparency , honesty and sharing failure.

There are four things we need to do:

  • Default to transparency – publish everything. Even our biggest mistakes.
  • Reinvent services – not rebrand them.
  • Humanise the organisation – push our customers and colleagues to the forefront, not the bosses.
  • Forget trying to change the image of sectors – if we align ourselves with a sector we just become an average of everyone else.

Ultimately – if you really want to transform perceptions of your organisation or sector there’s only one option:


Anything else is just an expensive waste of time. 


15 thoughts on “People Don’t Believe Our Organisations – Here’s Why

  1. Great post, Paul. I hadn’t seen the Edelman graphic. Have to say, I wonder how much of the ratings of the Trusted countries are because of compliance more than freely-given trust of course. Some of those countries are not known for their high levels of open leadership.

    The key thing here for me is getting that Global Average figure of 55 to go up. Slightly better than neutral, edging towards trust, is a good place to start, but it would be great to see how we can collectively co-ordinate and work together to make it more than that. There is a definite business case for creating ease and trust around engagement.

    Thanks also for flagging up the pointlessness of the hoopla part. Just fyi, in the Connected Housing Study this year there are pretty definitive indications that Housing communications are in crisis. Engagement levels across the 285 looked at have further fallen against consumer brands in the last year.

    The narrative needs changing. Being compelling is nothing without being credible. When I think about the Housing narrative, there is a great deal of room for reframing we could there that needs to happen.

    1. Thanks Anne – I think you’re right about compliance in some cultures!

      Your comment about the business case for engagement and trust is interesting and I’m not sure many social sector organisations think of it that way. In some ‘engagement’ is a siloed activity run by a specific team and not linked to strategic outcomes.

      And I love your closing paragraph!

  2. Hello Paul,
    Pure coincidence that I ended up talking about transformation this weekend – honest.
    It’s a bit like a vicous cycle
    – have a problem with reputation (or anything else)
    – address it with a transformation programme
    – use the same old methods of delivery (do stuff to people)
    – make the problem worse
    – evaluate by selecting the evidence that proves it worked
    Greater transparency and some humility about failure has to be the answer here.
    As you say, in the digital age it’s much harder to hide the truth.
    If everything is out there, there’s not much to talk about.
    None of this is easy though, there’s years of power, influence and structures invested in maintaining and protecting the status quo.
    I’m sure you’ve said this before, but working at the ‘edge’ is where some of this might happen.

  3. Thanks Paul.
    I was worried abou the ability to criticise in some of the countries mentioned here but others have commented. It seems to me the big issue on trust is the disconnect between what organisations say and do. The same is true of people. Trust is built on delivering what you say you will deliver. I fear the disconnect between the two especially with regard to values and social purpose is growing in the social housing sector and thus trust is diminishing. As someone else has said we are lacking in humility and transparency and integrity.

    1. Thanks Tom. With regards to social housing the danger is we shift position based up the whims of government. As we’ve discussed before we spent a long time telling everyone we are ‘more than bricks and mortar’. By changing tack we risk losing any shred of credibility (and therefore trust) we ever had.

      I’m not sure these campaigns have long term impact – the first I remember was In Business For Neighbourhoods. I think if you transform what you do and , can evidence the social impact you are having , over time perceptions should change.

  4. Great blog Paul! We’ve done a bit of work on Trust over the last year ourselves (, but I didn’t manage to put it across half as accessibly as you did! Really like your point about being more human, and that example of a relationship breaking down is a perfect way to illustrate it. Right, like Dawnie’s Kitchen, I’m off to get all my mates so they can tell my girlfriend how awesome I am.



  5. Supported housing has always ONLY worked because it forms a relationship of trust between resident and landlord – something that general needs landlords have never had or ever sought. Nuff said!

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